What distinguishes live theatre from the movies, when all is said and done? Think about the question closely. Go beyond the fact that movies are projected images, the same every time you view them. Both tell stories. Both have characters that grow. But movies — even animated movies — are realistic. They show you everything; they leave nothing to the imagination. Close up or far, what they present — if not real — is realistic.
But the stage. The stage. The stage is a home of real imagination. Shall we say, pure imagination. Go to any intimate theatre, and look at the worlds they create with just a few boxes and props. Even in the larger theatres, the sets are mere suggestions of realism. The world that is created is one that is in your imagination. Even when you take a property that was once on the screen and move it to the stage, you need to adapt it for that change from a world of realism to a world of imagination. Cinema magic isn’t the same as stage magic. They are different beasts, and the story must often adapt for that change in worlds.
Keep that in mind when you read reviews, for some reviewers don’t get that fundamental aspects of the stage. Even theatre reviewers forget it.
The children’s author Roald Dahl understood imagination well. His books centered on imagination, and understood that kids don’t fear the scary or gross — they embrace it. Three of his stories have been adapted into musicals (to my knowledge), and as of last Thursday, we’ve seen all three. The first of his stories we saw on stage was Matilda, which we saw back in 2015, and again a few weeks ago. Many compared Matilda to the movie: there were changes from the movie to the stage, and the movie was not a musical. The approach to the story was a bit different, and the stage depended much more on imagination. Then there was James and the Giant Peach, which we saw a little over a year ago. There is an animated version of the story, which I’ve never seen. I throughly enjoyed the stage version, which was much more oriented towards children, but still harnessed significant imagination in making the characters come to life with human actors. The music of Pasek and Paul didn’t hurt.
Then there’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we saw Thursday night. The problem here is that the original 1971 movie is both iconic and a musical. Gene Wilder stamped himself on that role, and most people can’t separate his portrayal from how they imagine the story. There’s also a 2003 version with Johnny Depp, but it never achieved quite the same iconic nature, is downright creepy, and is best forgotten. But the Wilder version: that’s so iconic that when the stage musical (with songs by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; and book by David Grieg) was transferred from London’s West End to Broadway, they had to interpolate songs from the movie, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, into the stage musical in order for it to be accepted. In many ways that’s too bad: I have only heard the London Cast Album, and enjoy it quite a lot.
So many people come into the stage musical expecting to see the equivalent of the Wilder movie on stage, and they don’t get it. I believe this is why many reviewers have walked out of this show disappointed: they don’t see the magic of the movie on stage. Well, GET OVER IT. This is a stage musical, and must be viewed on its own. Changes are made as the story is adapted to the stage; characters are updated so that children of today can related to them. The story must be designed to talk to adults (who can afford to pay for the tickets) as well as the children. Most of all, the imagination that is on stage must be uniquely theatrical.
If you can set aside your preconceived notions from the 1971 movie and watch this version of Charlie on its own terms, I think you’ll enjoy it as much as we did. There is loads of creativity in the show. There’s lots of song and dance, and both the children in the audience and the children in the adults will entertained. There are sufficient references back to the 1971 movie to provide that modicum of comfort and familiarity, and there isn’t a single trace of Johnny Depp.
I probably don’t need to go in detail into the story. You’ve quite likely seen either or both of the movies. Basically, reclusive chocolate manufacturer and creator Willy Wonka decides to reopen his factory to five children who have found golden tickets hidden in Wonka bars. Four of them meet horrible death or injury due to repulsive habits, but the one who is pure of heart wins the grand prize: the factory. It’s just like a horror movie, but with kids.
So what has changed in this version. Let’s start with the kids: none appear to be British. Augustus is the least changed from what he was in the movie. Veruca is Russian, and the same spoiled brat she always was — except she does ballet. Violet Beauregarde still chews gum, but is now black and hip-hop-ish and from Los Angeles. Mike Tevee is more spoiled teen videogamer who hacks computer systems, vs. the TV watching kid he was. Charlie is essentially the same, except he went from having two parents in the movie, to having just a father in the London version, to having just a mother in the Broadway version. Oh, and the character of Slugworth and the whole notion of kid’s spying is gone.
Instead, there’s a new framing device added that changes the tone of the piece — a framing necessary by the theatrical demands of having your most entertaining character be on stage for both acts. This is because the first act, due to the demands of exposition, must introduce you to each of the children, and provide the background on their characters, their faults, and their ambitions. That’s a story that — if you recall the movie — is absent Willy Wonka. In the movie, Wonka doesn’t show up until the start of the factory tour. But that cannot work on stage: you want to see Wonka. So the story now opens with Wonka on-stage, explaining that he has decided it is time to pass the factory down. He then transforms into the owner of the candy shop that now sells Wonka products, and starts interacting with Charlie, encouraging him to buy a bar. He keeps encouraging him throughout the first act, as each ticket is found, being disappointed that Charlie cannot afford to buy the bar that the candy shop owner so clearly wants him to buy (and, with the audience in on the secret of who the candy shop owner is — they know Wonka really wants Charlie to get a ticket). In desperation, after the 4th ticket is found, Wonka closes the shop claiming to be sold out, but leaves a dollar on the floor for Charlie to find … and plants the bar where Charlie can purchase it. Random chance of Charlie getting the ticket? Doesn’t pass the sniff test, with the framing device.
Most reviews I have read do not like this change. Most reviews I have read complain about the first act taking so much time to introduce the characters. But the story just doesn’t work with any other structure. The framing device changes the story, yes, but in a way that works for the stage, and lets the audience in on a secret that the characters on stage don’t know. I’ll note that reviewers also complain that the only child on stage is the actor playing Charlie. All the other kids are portrayed by adults. Again, these are the demands of the stage (children, for example, can’t do that much on-pointe dancing), but the suspension of belief of the stage makes it work.
When Wonka returns to the stage as Wonka, the energy and the imagination ramps up. This is hinted at in the closing number of the first act, but even more so as the second act opens and the tour begins. The stage cannot duplicate the film, but does imagination in its own way. How they handle the fates of the children is both more violent than the movie, and much more imaginative. Violet explodes on stage. Veruca is torn limb from limb. MIke becomes an animated puppet. But I think the best sequence is before Mike’s demise: when they must walk across the marshmallows, make a u-turn into the wind tunnel, and then walk across the field of flying frying pans. Mind you: there is nothing on the stage. They are doing this with pure pantomime and sound effects, and it is magical. Pure stage magic. For me, this was the scene that made the entire show magic. No projections. No props. An empty stage with pure performance and imagination magic.
Then there are the Oompa-Loompas. When they make their entrance, the audience goes wild. They are a combination of puppetry and dance, and are magic in the imagination displayed. They are indescribably funny, and they are such a creative use of the ensemble.
Through a combination of projection effects, puppetry, and performance, this production creates a new level of stage imagination. It is different than the movie, and to compare the two is to invite disappointment. They are different, and must be judged separately. The stage Wonka provides a different type of lunacy than Wilder brought to the role, although there is a modium of the deadpan WIlder aspects that cannot stop the children from their natures.
So, yes, I enjoyed it.
Kudos to the director, Jack O’Brien (and the London director, Sam Mendes), and the choreographer, Joshua Bergasse (and the London choreographer, Peter Darling) for the creativity and movement they brought to this production.
Let’s now turn to the performance aspect of the piece.
Willy Wonka is created on stage by Noah Weisberg (FB). Weisberg does not have the same demented deadpan nature as Wilder, but he does make the role his own in his own way. Watch the joy of the character in the first act as he portrays the shop owner. Then see how his nature changes in the second act as the lunacy and the foreknowledge kicks in. He knows who the bad kids are, and knows that nothing he will do will stop them. In many ways, he is much more knowingly leading them to their demise, putting just the temptation in front of them that will pull to the problems in their nature. Note that he does this with Charlie at the end as well, but the temptation is of a different nature and in a different direction, and it is that different direction that allows Charlie to succeed. Weisberg’s Wonka succeeds well in pulling off the character. Just watch his face closely in the opening numbers, and you can see that he is making clear that his character is much more … omniscient … than perhaps he is saying with his words. He sings well, dances well, and handles the comedy spectacularly.
Charlie Bucket is played by the only children on stage — and three young men divide the role. At our performance, we had Rueby Wood (IG); the other performers are Henry Boshart (IG) and Collin Jeffery (FB, IG). Wood captured the character well. I initially was unsure about his voice, but it got stronger throughout the evening and worked well. He was able to capture the right range of emotion and wonder for the character, and sang and moved well for someone so young.
Turning to Charlie’s family next: three of the four grandparents were mostly comic relief and played more as part of the ensemble. We’ll cover them there. The standalone family members were Amanda Rose (FB) as Mrs. Bucket and James Young (FB) as Grandpa Joe. Rose’s mom was sweet and caring; you knew she knew she had a special child that she had to nurture in a hard world (and one can, perhaps, understand why they changed it from just the dad in London). She sang beautifully in her main number. Young’s Joe (I want to say Mighty Joe Young) was much more of a comic character. Unlike the movie’s Jack Albertson who was just sweet and old, this Joe had an imagination equal to young Charlie, as demonstrated by the story telling. He sang well and performed well; his character was less pushed into the dance aspects.
This brings us to the other “children”, all of whom were played by adults. Most of these performances were limited by book to be somewhat broad and stereotypical. In the required fat suit was Matt Wood (FB) as Augustus Gloop. Wood’s Gloop was perhaps the least characterized of the kids: food gluttony is easy to portray on stage, and he didn’t do much more than stereotypically go after his food. His mother, played by Claire Neumann◊ (FB), was less rounded as Augustus, but more rounded as a character. She captured well the mom that couldn’t say no to her children in terms of food.
[Hmmm, as an aside, one wonders if this is a cautionary tale more for the parents than the children, for all the parents of the problematic children had one thing in common — they could not say no to their children … whereas Charlie’s parent was the only one that said “no” and stood by that decision. Would that the parents of the child in the White House have learned that lesson, and taught the meaning of “no” … but I digress]
Anyway, back to Neumann’s Mrs. Gloop. She played his mother well, and had a strong voice in her number introducing Gloop. The second child was Veruca Salt, played by Jessica Cohen (FB). She certainly had the demanding aspects of the performance down well, both in the “I want it now and my way” aspects, but even more so in the continual ballet pointe dancing. Naturally, she moved well and had a good singing voice. Her father, played by Nathanial Hackmann (FB), was a much more stereotypical Russian portrayal. It worked, for what it was. This brings us to our third child, Violet Beauregarde, played by Brynn Williams (FB). When she came on stage, I turned to my wife and said, “that girl has a voice!” She sings strongly and powerfully, and had great dance moves and was fun to watch. Again, her father on stage was much more stereotypical “professional hood dad” — for which I fault the writing — but David Samuel handled it well. Our last “child” as Daniel Quadrino (FB)’s Mike Tevee. His role was more teen brat, but he did remarkable in the wind-tunnel scene, and had a wonderful interaction with Wonka over his cell phone. It was a lesson I wished the audience members took to heart. Stealing her scenes, however, was Jennifer Jill Malenke◊ (FB) as Mrs. Tevee. Her wonderful knowing looks and interactions with Wonka over alcohol were just priceless and delightful to watch.
This brings us, at last, to the very talented ensemble. They got to not only be dancing and acting as characters in the background, but became the Oompa Loompas in the second act. In those roles, they shone. They covered the lesser grandparents and the reporters, and made the magic happen behind the characters. They consisted of (additional named roles as noted): Sarah Bowden (FB, FB) also Cherry Sundae; Alex Dreschke (FB); Jess Fry (FB); David R. Gordon (FB); Chavon Hampton (FB); Sabrina Harper◊ (FB); Benjamin Howes (FB) also Grandpa George; Karen Hyland◊ (FB) also Grandma Josephine; Lily Kaufmann (FB); David Paul Kidder (FB); Joe Moeller (FB); Tanisha Moore (FB); Joel Newsome (FB) also Jerry Jubilee; Kristin Piro◊ (FB) also Grandma Georgina; Armando Yearwood Jr.◊ (FB) also Mrs. Green; and Borris Anthony York (FB). Of particular note here were Yearwood’s Mrs. Green, who was hilarious, and Howes’s Grandpa, who got some wonderfully comic lines.
[◊ indicates performers swung up from the ensemble or as swings]
Swings who weren’t swinging were: Colin Bradbury (FB); Elijah Dillehay (FB); and Kevin Nietzel (FB). Normal performers who weren’t on at our performance were: Madeleine Doherty (FB) normally Mrs. Teveee; Kathy Fitzgerald (FB) normally Mrs. Gloop; Clyde Voce (FB) normally Mrs. Green/Ensemble, and Caylie Rose Newcom (FB) normally Ensemble.
Music direction was by Charlie Alterman (FB), who conducted the Pantages orchestra (with John Yun (FB) [Assoc. Conductor]). The orchestra consisted of (🌴indicates local): Charlie Alterman (FB) Keyboards; John Yun (FB) Keyboards; Kelly Thomas (FB) Keyboards; Greg Germann (FB) Drums / Percussion; David White (FB) Bass; Jen Choi Fisher (FB) 🌴 Violins; Ira Glansbeek 🌴 Concertmaster, Cello; Richard Mitchell 🌴 Reed 1 (Flute / Piccolo / Alto Sax / Clarinet); Jeff Driskill (FB) 🌴 Reed 2 (Clarinet / Soprano Sax / Tenor Sax / Bass Clarinet); John Fumo (FB) 🌴 Trumpet / Piccolo Trumpet / Flugelhorn; Charlie Morillas (FB) 🌴 Trombone; Mike Abraham (FB) 🌴 Guitar (Solid Body Electric, Jazz Electric, Banjo, Nylon Acoustic, Steel Acoustic); Alby Potts (FB) 🌴 Synth Sub. Other music support: Eric Heinly (FB) 🌴 Orchestra Contractor; Doug Besterman (FB) Orchestrations; Marc Shaiman (FB) Arrangements; John Miller (FB) Music Coordinator; Nicholas Skilbeck (FB) Music Supervisor; Michael Starobin (FB) Additional Orchestrations; Phij Adams (FB) Music Technology; JoAnn Kane Music Service / Russell Bartmus, Mark Graham, Josie Bearden, Charlies Savage Music Copying.
Finally, turning to the production, creative, and support side of the equation. Mark Thompson‘s scenic and costume design worked well. The main set pieces: the Wonka factory, the Chocolate Store, the Bucket Residence, and the various pieces in the factory itself — were suitably creating and worked well for the story. Similarly, the costumes worked well to establish each character in broad strokes with their personality. This was supported extensively by Jeff Sugg‘s video and projection design, which provided the amplification of the imagination. It will be interesting to see how regional productions of this adapt without the heavy video usage. More imagination, I guess. Basil Twist (FB)’s Puppetry Design was spectacularly — not only for the Oompa Loompas, but for the miniaturized Mike Tevee who was believably shrunk. Also supporting these on-stage design aspects was Campbell Young Associates‘s hair and makeup design, as Buist Buckley (FB)’s production properties. Andrew Keister (FB)’s sound was reasonably clear and had good sound effects; Japhy Weideman‘s lighting established place, time, and mood well. Other creative and support were: Kristin Piro (FB) Dance Captain; Kevin Nietzel (FB) Asst. Dance Captain; Matt Lenz (FB) Assoc. Director; Alison Solomon (FB) Assoc Choreographer; Andrew Bacigalupo (FB) Prod. Stage Manager; Alan D. Knight (FB) Stage Manager; Cate Agis Asst. Stage Manager; Telsey + Company (FB) Casting; Juniper Street Productions Production Manager; Foresight Theatrical General Management.
Due to our having to shift seeing this production due to a wedding, we saw it much later in the run than normal. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory closes at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) on Sunday, April 14. If you can get tickets, go see it.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Tonight brings us to the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend brings the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (FB). The third weekend of April will bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The fourth weekend of April is interesting, as my wife is having a small procedure during the week. Thursday may bring Chris McBride’s Big Band at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), but this is looking less likely. Saturday will bring In The Heights at the LA Pierce College Theater (FB) (featuring a performer we saw at REP), but for me alone. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB). May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring! June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). I’m just starting to wade through the list of 306 shows, but I already see some I want to see, including The Seven Year Itch, [title of show], and the return of Tabletop: The Musical. As for July, it is already starting to fill, with Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.