Enter a world of pure imagination, where golden tickets, a lifetime supply of sweets and whizzing Great Glass Elevators aren’t the stuff of dreams.
This is the wonder of Roald Dahl’s wickedly delightful 1964 novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a rags-to-riches tale wrapped up in so much confectionary goodness, it has melted kids and adults’ hearts and stuck with them over decades, like sticky lollies in pockets.
And after a delectable film adaptation (Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka becoming iconic in his own right), it’s hard not to crave another version of this story.
But this newly conjured-up musical proves imagination is still key to the weird and wonderful world of Willy Wonka. Without that much-needed magic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a flat dessert, one that has some but not all of the right ingredients required for the sugar high we desire (and deserve).
Panned first in London for its plain score and slow-moving book (David Greig) before being completely reworked with new director Jack O’Brien for Broadway, this Australian premiere hasn’t exactly solved the problems of its previous productions.
O’Brien also helms this Australian show. He’s retooled it slightly, inserting nudge-and-wink historical Australian references to the Eureka Stockade and Ned Kelly, and even letting the twang of the local Australian accent ring freely on stage.
The reason for these changes isn’t clear, especially when the musical loses much of its colour and original wackiness in the process. Sketching out the narrative in the broadest of strokes, Charlie Bucket (played on opening night by a sweet, wide-eyed Ryan Yeates) lives in a house of scrap-heaps, with his bed-ridden grandparents (including Grandpa Joe, a twinkly-eyed, charming Tony Sheldon) and mother (a criminally under-used but endearing Lucy Maunder).
When Charlie finds one of five Golden Tickets secreted in Willy Wonka’s signature confectionary line, he’s granted all-areas access into the workings of the mysterious Wonka Chocolate Factory.
He’s joined by modern revisions of four nasty children, all played here by adults: Bulgarian sausage-devouring Augustus Gloop (Jake Fehily); screaming Russian ballet brat Veruca Salt (Karina Russell); social media diva Violet Beuregard (Monette McKay), and gaming-addict Mike Teavee (Harrison Riley).
It takes the children a while to get fully stuck in the world of chocolate fantasy. The musical’s structure meanders in a long Act One introduction of tiring breaking-news vignettes, sung through as a pastiche of forgettable musical tunes from Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman (the Broadway duo behind Hairspray and most recently Mary Poppins Returns).
An emphasis on the Candyman character (who is actually Wonka disguised) as an amusing audience in-joke wears out pretty quickly. It’s more a relief, than a true surprise when Wonka (American import Paul Slade Smith) finally appears with the catchiest of choruses during the Act One closer, “It Must Be Believed to Be Seen”.
Unfortunately, our eyes aren’t treated to much candied euphoria when it’s time to enter the Factory, although the LED video projection does try awfully hard to impress (scenic design from Mark Thompson and video design by Jeff Sugg).
Cheesy PowerPoint transitions and montage animations hang tackily as graphic backdrops with minimal physically-crafted sets. It can’t even save “Pure Imagination” – a song that’s about defying explanation, which is then ironically countered by a chocolate waterfall made out of plain brown cloth. There’s little sense of wonder or magic in these vast rooms and the gimmicky inventions that should make Wonka’s humble abode so extraordinary.
There’s also little shade to the musical, which makes it an easy watch but not necessarily a consistently entertaining one. A few show-stopping numbers are exceptions. In one, the Oompa Loompas show off in a captivating puppetry dance break. In another, giant squirrels engage in an absurdly twisted ballet sequence with Veruca Salt. Otherwise, the macabre, whimsical humour of Dahl’s book is barely present, and not even children facing direly ambiguous ends is enough to inject that dark undertone into the story.
Even Slade Smith’s portrayal of Wonka is more poised and less wonky than his predecessors, and you can’t help but feel he’s playing it safe.
Then again, risk-taking isn’t exactly on this production’s radar. It’s more harmless fun than anything, so it’s hard not to be swept up in its waffling ideas of edible dreams or dote on the joyful innocence of young Charlie. But be prepared to bring your own imagination to the show – or a box of chocolates – to better satisfy that sugar craving.