Charlie and the Chocolate Factory review

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Review - Broadway musical

London — The song arrives late in the new musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” but when that familiar lilting melody begins, audiences come alive as at no other point in the show. During one performance this summer, several people hummed softly while others smiled broadly as the mysterious chocolatier, Willy Wonka, stepped into his glass elevator and sang “Pure Imagination,” the immensely tuneful number from the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

The show’s director, Sam Mendes, feared this would happen. He resisted including “Pure Imagination” at first, saying he already felt “haunted” by the performance of Gene Wilder as Wonka from the movie. He didn’t want his musical’s otherwise original score to be sized up against the most beloved song from the movie.

But now it is “Pure Imagination” — more durable than an Everlasting Gobstopper — that is haunting the $20 million musical. The show may well end up being remembered as a cautionary tale for movie studios who want to make musicals out of films and books (in this case, by Roald Dahl) that are treasured by many.

“It’s a song you can’t get out of your head,” said an audience member, David Reid of Inverness, Scotland, as he and his 12-year-old son, Matthew, stood outside the Drury Lane Theater after the show. “It’s quite hard to improve on that movie, isn’t it?”

“Charlie,” the latest theatrical effort by Hollywood studios to cash in on movie properties, is facing an uphill climb toward a major goal of its producers at Warner Brothers: becoming a hit on Broadway. The world premiere opened here to sharply mixed reviews this summer, including some harsh ones — a hindrance to any future Broadway transfer, let alone eventual profitability here or in New York or from road and international productions that might follow.

More damning than anything, some critics declared that the most resonant song in the musical was not one of the 18 original numbers by the Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”), but “Pure Imagination,” the only tune imported from the Wilder movie.

While Mr. Mendes’s musical has much else that is new — a plot twist involving Wonka, played by the Tony winner Douglas Hodge (“La Cage aux Folles”), for instance, and an updating of Charlie and the other four children with golden tickets — the show nevertheless finds itself struggling to compete with a ghost.

“I found it pretty difficult to un-remember Gene Wilder while I was working on this, but ideally people have to put aside the movie,” said Mr. Mendes, himself the Oscar-winning film director of “American Beauty,” and whose last picture was the James Bond blockbuster “Skyfall.”

“Look, we have seen visual renditions of worlds on film that you are never going to get in theater — the yellow brick road will only go to the back wall of the theater, and Wonka’s river of chocolate can never be matched onstage,” Mr. Mendes added. “You have to find magical solutions to theatrical challenges, and hope that the audiences are open to them.”

No one is hoping more than the show’s lead producers from Warner Brothers, Mark Kaufman and Raymond Wu, who took over the theatrical division in 2011 as part of a shake-up after its Broadway musical flops “Baby It’s You” and “Lestat.” The two men were bullish during a recent interview, using their own superlatives to describe the London production of “Charlie,” but they also said that the musical would be retooled for Broadway.

A New York transfer has not been announced; while the 2014-15 theater season is thought to be the target, the two men declined to say when it would happen. (Another musical based on a Dahl book, “Matilda,” is now running in London and on Broadway; it has had strong reviews and solid ticket sales in both markets. The “Charlie” producers said they were confident that “Matilda” would not swamp them.)

“Every show and everyone deserves a second chance,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Plenty of shows get reviews that aren’t favorable the first time out. Our word of mouth is good, and we’re playing at 95 percent capacity, which is a very good sign.”

Several Broadway producers who have come here to see “Charlie” were lukewarm about its script and score and said they would not want to invest in any Broadway transfer of the show. (The producers would only disclose their reservations anonymously, for fear of offending the artists involved.) None had any easy solutions to the show’s flaws, but posited two ideas. Lacking excellent reviews, the show needs to build into a box office sensation to justify a transfer to New York. And the producers could add more popular tunes from the Wilder film, like “The Candy Man,” or the “Oompa Loompa” songs that accompany the little orange-skinned men who work in the factory.

But the Warner Brothers executives, who have heard these suggestions, won’t go there.

“We want the musical to be a companion piece to the other ‘Chocolate Factory’ properties, not a souvenir, so using more songs from the first movie is not part of our plan,” Mr. Kaufman said. “An American audience might be a little different from here, so we might change things to suit that audience. But Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman did their assignment really well, and I think people will notice that.”

Mr. Shaiman and Mr. Wittman were clear from the start with Warner Brothers and Mr. Mendes that they were not interested in a mélange musical, combining their songs with the Oscar-nominated score from 1971 by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

Mr. Shaiman, who wrote the new music and collaborated with Mr. Wittman on the lyrics, said that he was not sentimental about the movie — he didn’t see it until he was an adult — and felt “no pressure to live up to it,” because a 2005 film adaptation of the Dahl book, starring Johnny Depp as Wonka, showed that a new version of “Charlie” could be commercially successful. That movie was not a musical, however, inviting fewer comparisons to the Wilder film.

For their “Charlie,” Mr. Shaiman and Mr. Wittman, who are American, chose to develop a score rooted in the exuberant patter and innuendo of the British music hall tradition. Each of the children, meanwhile, has a signature sound, like techno rave music for Mike Teavee and rap for Violet Beauregarde.

“And with Wonka, he is part Ray Davies from the Kinks and part Noël Coward song-and-dance man,” Mr. Wittman said. “Dahl is so British and Sam is so British, and that’s what we went for — and we had Dahl’s great wordplay and idioms to work with,” evident in their comic song “Strike That! Reverse It” that opens Act II.

As for the addition of “Pure Imagination” to the score, the major players on “Charlie” have different recollections of how it came to be included.

Mr. Mendes said he came around because of the loveliness of the song, but didn’t think it would be creatively helpful to force it on his songwriters as they were developing their score. His producing partner, Caro Newling, said the Warner Brothers executives wanted a fresh score, but also wanted “the power” of “Pure Imagination” in the mix. Everyone resisted at first, she said, adding that Mr. Shaiman was the last to embrace it.

“Sam took Marc and Scott away — I think for a weekend to his country place — took them for a long muddy walk,” she recalled. “Scott was much more able to go to the place where he could see it. And the truth of the matter is, it doesn’t impact on the show adversely. There are some great numbers in here. ‘Simply Second Nature’ is a beautiful song.

“So there’s always a nervousness. But actually, I think Marc probably will never get over it, is the truth of it. He will always choose to see that as the song that they could have written better. Now I’m putting words into his mouth.”

Mr. Shaiman said that, in fact, he and Mr. Wittman came to realize that “Pure Imagination” would be a good fit for the show; it is now sung near the end when Wonka and Charlie fly in the factory’s glass elevator. (In the movie, Wonka sings it as he and the children enter his chocolate room.)

“Caro and Sam might have taken a motherly, fatherly point of view about ‘what will the boys feel about this?’ ” Mr. Shaiman said. “For years we would tell people that we were writing this score, and very smart people would say: ‘ “Pure Imagination”! I love that song!’ Scott and I are not stupid. To be blunt, we wanted to make a hit. We wanted to please the audience.”

The libretto, by the playwright David Greig (“The Events”), has plenty of echoes of the Dahl book and the first film, but there is less of the sardonic and idiosyncratic humor. Mr. Greig, too, did not grow up with the original movie, seeing it only when he signed on to the musical project. He said he wrote the show strictly with children in mind.

“It’s for the kid in the audience who has read the book but doesn’t go the theater much, and this is his first show — so I want the story to absorb him and transport him,” Mr. Greig said. “Every story and every new show needs time to breathe and find its proper state, and I know we’ll do more work on the production. At the same time, we’d be foolish to rush in and make changes just to react to reviews.”

For now the most pressure is on Mr. Hodge, who has received generally good notices as Wonka. He passed up a high-profile British revival of “Barnum” to do a new musical, and was taken with the inventive language and the challenge of playing an enigma. He thought about Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson as he mulled the affect and tone of the elusive man-child Wonka, and he, too, tried to block out Wilder.

“I’ve done mainly Shakespeare, and you can’t get caught up in thinking about the great actors who have done hefty interpretations before,” Mr. Hodge said. “When you’re in front of a 2,500-seat theater full of children, there’s a specific energy required for a Wonka to be the motor of a stage musical. There had to a point where I said, ‘This has to be absolutely mine.’ And Sam was always urging me, ‘Don’t be afraid of the darkness in the character,’ which I also think is particular to this musical.”

As rehearsals began this spring, Mr. Mendes said, the memory of Mr. Wilder began to fade as Mr. Hodge’s characterization grew sharper. Mr. Mendes said he now feels “freed” from the original movie in a way that he audiences in London and, eventually, New York will feel too.

“Doug is my Wonka now,” he said in no uncertain terms.

And that Wonka, as Mr. Wilder did four decades ago, is still singing “Pure Imagination.”
Last Update:April, 06th 2016

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