Pity the poor Oompa Loompas who get assigned by Willy Wonka with the impossible task of cleaning up the disastrous and distasteful Broadway musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. No amount of “Pure Imagination” can save this train wreck. The musical is of course based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1964 children’s novel, which was adapted into the 1971 and 2005 film versions starring Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp, respectively.
It premiered in London in 2013 under the direction of Sam Mendes. For Broadway, it has been reworked by the similarly accomplished Jack O’Brien. I find it hard to believe that the London production (which received mixed to negative reviews) was worse than what is now at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Speaking of which, here is an idea: Going forward, the producers of any show going into the theater must ask themselves if the Lunts would have approved of it.
Starring as Willy Wonka is Christian Borle, who gave an extraordinary performance earlier this season in the limited-run revival of William Finn’s Falsettos. (Appropriately, Borle received a Tony nomination for Falsettos instead of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) Three young boys share the role of Charlie Bucket at alternating performances. For no discernable reason, adults play the four self-indulgent children who join Charlie on the visit to Wonka’s factory.
Audience members are encouraged to munch on the candy products sold in the lobby during the show. I took advantage of the opportunity and became the first critic in theater history to hold a pen and notepad with one hand and an oversized lollipop with the other. I may have looked ridiculous, but the lollipop really was the best part of the show.
An ultra-aggressive, play-it-up silliness pervades every aspect of the show, turning what is a tender and fanciful story into a loud and brash frenzy intended to capture the attention of very young children, where Charlie is practically shouting from the rooftops, Veruca Salt is violently torn to pieces by squirrels and Violet Beauregarde inflates and explodes. (As a child, could you watch that and not get nightmares?) It brings to mind other botched musicals based on well-known comedies like Young Frankenstein (another adaptation of a Gene Wilder film) and The Addams Family (which played the same theater), or perhaps a live children’s entertainment franchise like Medieval Times.
There is a desperate quality to Borle’s upbeat performance. He pushes too hard, resorting to increasingly larger antics in an attempt to win over the crowd. It is a far cry from the warmth and effortless kookiness of Gene Wilder’s iconic performance. Jackie Hoffman at least scores a few laughs as one of the clueless parents.
The new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) are terrible (and sound all the worse by being mixed in with standards from the 1971 film like “Pure Imagination” and “Candy Man”). David Greig’s book observes the structure of the novel and films, which means that the first act is just a long lead up to the factory visit.
When it comes to scenic design, the production is surprisingly skimpy. If you’re doing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the audience expects to see a spectacular chocolate factory, not an empty stage. The Oompa Loompas are reduced to hand puppetry. The ideal way to present the story might be as environmental theater in the style of Sleep No More, where audience members can freely roam about the elaborate chocolate factory and observe activity occurring throughout it.