Ever since the exterior of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was redone to look like a chocolate factory, everyone has been anxiously awaiting the opening of the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical. Now that people have been allowed inside it has become clear that the building’s facade is more impressive than the musical inside.
On the surface, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sounds like it would make an amazing musical: fun characters, a clear plot structure, some famous songs already there, and ample opportunity for spectacle and stage magic. However, somehow the musical by David Greig (book), Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics), and Scott Wittman (lyrics) and the direction by Jack O’Brien manage to miss all of these easily adaptable qualities. The characters are annoyingly underdevleoped, the plot is drawn out in all the wrong places, the original songs are used poorly, and the new songs are completely unmemorable, and most of the stage magic is improperly and inconsistently executed. Worst of all, the show suffers from an extreme lack of a spectacle, leaving most audience members disappointed.
The audience is certainly taken advantage of here. The entire show everyone is waiting to see inside the chocolate factory, anticipating the bright colors, moving parts, optical illusions, and never-ending candy. Instead, the audience has to sit through an hour-long first act where the characters never enter the factory. Unlike the other versions of this story, which focus mainly on the period while Charlie is in the factory, this musical spends half of its stage time on the events before he goes in. Unsurprisingly, these scenes and songs are incredibly boring.
But when Act II finally rolls around and we get to see the factory, it was equally boring, disappointing, and drab; the set design by Mark Thomson was appallingly minimalist. All the build up from Act I led to a completely anticlimactic, static, and rushed Act II. All that waiting for no reward. Instead of amazing chocolate lakes, spiraling tunnels, and giant candy-making machine, there were solid blue walls. Many of the rooms consisted of a door frame, and a single set piece rolled on. The movie versions of this work both had very clear and very dramatic visual aesthetics, but this musical was bland, unimaginative, and not visually appealing.
But beyond structural problems, the show also suffered from acting and directing problems. For some unknown reason, all of the children except Charlie were played (badly) by adults. This isn’t to say that the child actor playing Charlie did a good job (Jake Ryann Flynn, Ryan Foust, and Ryan Shell alternate the role). The largest acting criticism for this musical must be heaved on Christian Borle, who gave a lackluster and frustratingly ambiguous Willie Wonka. Borle admittedly had an incredibly hard job too, working with the legacies of both Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. But unlike Wilder’s Wonka, who seemed alarmingly mellow, predatory, and concerned for the children, or Depp’s Wonka, who was hyperactive, terrifying, and angry at the misbehaving youngsters, Borle seemed completely apathetic. The success of this production was sitting on Borle’s shoulders, and he clearly could not handle the load. His Tony nomination snub (and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s complete lack of nominations) speaks clearly that this show is more of a flop than a triumph.
However, in many ways, it does not matter what the Tony voters think. Although the musical received no nomination, parents and children are filling the theater every night. Children’s theater doesn’t need to be quality art to stay alive and make money, it just needs to be entertaining–and this show checks that box since it already announced an upcoming national tour. But that is where this show belongs, with parents and children in regional theaters, not on Broadway competing with artful new pieces like Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Bandstand, and Dear Evan Hansen.
At several points in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory there was no set at all and the audience and characters were forced to “believe” in the invisible magic–a device that was as lazy as it was unsuccessful, a perfect symbol for the production as a whole.