In the growing genre of family-friendly musical theatre, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a deliciously addictive treat. Combining good old-fashioned storytelling from the masterful Roald Dahl, with modern theatrical technology, toe-tapping songs and a script bursting with witticisms, this show is a recipe for fun.
The story stays faithful to the renowned novel, which follows little Charlie Bucket, an only child being raised by his widowed mother and four grandparents in a tiny rundown shack. They survive on vegetable soup and love. Charlie dreams up magical machines that will improve their lives while waiting patiently for his yearly birthday treat, a single bar of Wonka’s Whipple Scrumptious Marshmallow Delight. Meanwhile, just a few suburbs away, Mr Willy Wonka himself is pondering the future of his Chocolate Factory. He mounts a worldwide competition for five lucky children who will win a private tour of the factory, with one grand prize winner receiving a lifetime supply of Wonka treats.
You know the rest… Charlie is the lucky last child to find a Golden Ticket, and joins the merry band of misfit minors and their guardians for a wild ride through Wonka’s weird and wonderful world.
The first act covers the dynamics between Charlie and his family, and introduces the delightfully warped Golden Ticket winners as they are announced. Each character has a song dedicated to their backstory, which are as diverse in musical styles as they are character background: Augustus Gloop’s traditional Bavarian ditty, complete with yodelling; Russian Veruca Salt’s military-precise ballet; Violet Beauregard’s soulful pop anthem; and Mike Teavee’s mother’s patriotic call to arms for parents of screen-addicted teens. Each is performed with wonderful comedic effect by the “child” and their parent; setting the scene for future mischief as the show goes on. The production also features two songs that will be familiar to fans of the original Gene Wilder film – Candyman and Pure Imagination – which are nostalgically arranged for the stage and woven seamlessly into the stage story.
Act Two opens with the tour of the Factory led by the offbeat Mr Wonka (Paul Slade Smith), whose workplace health and safety policies would never fly in Australia. The “Children” are mesmerised by the machinery that creates Wonka’s fanciful treats; before one of them steps a defiant foot, or hand, or face in the wrong place and their a creatively dispatched for their sins. Many comments have been made over the years about how horrifying this element of the original story and films must be for children – but this production deals with them in a hilariously, and most audience members are gleefully waving the hapless character off the stage with a grin.
Spontaneous applause erupts at the first appearance of the Oompa Loompas, whose choreography and costuming is pure genius. Also worthy of special mention are the dance sequence featuring the sorting squirrels and the ‘glass elevator’ ride, which is so simply staged, but just magical. The set cleverly melds digital projection and animation into the stage area via a series of arches that enhance the action, most memorably with Mike Teavee, but also with a simple paper plane.
The cast is refreshingly varied – from stage veteran Tony Sheldon as Grandpa Joe, to the young performers making their professional debuts in the ensemble and as featured Golden Ticket holders. Other than Charlie (a role shared by four very talented boys, most of whom are already seasoned actors) all of the cast are adults, which adds even more laughs to the petulant antics on the factory tour. Jake Fehily as Augustus Gloop and Karina Russell as Veruca Salt are standouts, as are the over-the-top Mrs Teaveee (Jayde Westaby) and conversely understated Mr Salt (Stephen Anderson). Paul Slade Smith joins the cast from the original Broadway production as Wonka, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role – he delivers the delicate balance of whimsy and malice with such skill. The audience loves Mr Wonka, but you probably wouldn’t leave your child with him…
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently playing Sydney’s Capital Theatre but with sold-out audiences already and the wide smiles I saw on patron’s faces, I would expect some kind of national tour to be announced soon. If you simply can’t wait (as I couldn’t) – book yourself on a flight of fancy to Sydney before mid-year. Be sure to pack your imagination, and your sweet tooth.