Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Hennepin Theatre Trust
It was a week full of candy and sweets for me personally. First my work life was full of a sugar high with the grand opening of Candytopia at Mall of America - shameless plug but it’s incredible so you should go check it out - and then it was the opening night of a new musical. The adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has arrived in Minneapolis and will be here for nearly two weeks.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the classic story of rags to riches for a young boy named Charlie Bucket. Charlie has a deep love and admiration for not only chocolate but also Willy Wonka, one of the world’s most famous chocolatiers and inventor of the Everlasting Gobstopper. When Wonka decides to open his secret factory to five lucky winners, Charlie wishes as hard as he can that he can find a golden ticket. Charlie’s luck sweetens when he becomes one of five who wins a chance to embark on an incredible journey through a world of pure imagination.
The story of a madman of chocolate and a young boy named Charlie has a long history before the musical found its way to Broadway. What many don’t know is that it originally started in 1964 with a children’s novel written by British author Roald Dahl, for which this musical is more based off of. The story was then adapted for a feature film in 1971 with Gene Wilder. After more than 30 years later, another film version came into the mix that was tied more towards the original novel. Created by Tim Burton, this version starred Johnny Depp and even borrowed themes from the books sequel Charlie and the Glass Elevator.
The musical then premiered in London’s West End in 2013 and ran for nearly 3 and a half years. It was a hit there however it was not met with as much success after transferring to Broadway. The show opened in 2017 after being reworked for New York. The Christian Borle led production lasted only nine months on Broadway.
While it isn’t my favorite movie, I am a fairly fond of the original movie. It’s nostalgic, fun, imaginative and just an entertaining movie. Knowing that I had some expectations going in, especially to see the set and what would be created on stage. Sadly I was fairly disappointed with not only the set but the show overall especially when the musical has such rich material to go off of from the book and even two movie adaptations. It failed to be nominated for any Tony Awards.
I’ve grown to be open to productions using projection screens for sets however there needs to be some limits. The use of projection screens can really enhance a set and that - and only that - is what they should be used for. The set instantly becomes nothing more than boring and lackluster when it relies too heavily on them versus enhancing it. The screens made up more than 85% of the set with just random set pieces depicting the various scenes and rooms in Wonka’s factory. I was hoping at least the giant forest room of candy would be more but was sadly mistaken.
The cast is pretty solid to varying degrees. The show is led by Benjamin Howes who plays Mr. Wonka. Howes had a Martin Short quality to him that made his delivery of lines hilarious however I didn’t get the magic and nostalgia I was hoping during “Pure Imagination.” Amanda Rose, who plays Mrs. Bucket has a lovely soprano voice however her role is a bit diminished with an odd ballet dance sequence with her dead husband, Mr. Bucket. Grandpa Joe is played by James Young and is so charming in that perfect grandpa way.
The show still had some fun nougats that made it shine like a golden ticket. Rueby Wood, who plays Charlie, is truly fantastic. This is the second time I’ve seen a show within the last month where the youngest and smallest cast member made the biggest impact. His range is beautiful and he perfectly captures Charlie’s adorable innocence.
The second highlight for me was Jessica Cohen who plays Veruca Salt. It’s always fun to play the whiny brat of the show however it can become too much for audience members if you go too over the top, however not her. Cohen hits it perfectly and is never to the point of annoyance. Her loud outbursts are hilarious. This same idea can really be applied to all of the other golden ticket winners who were played by adult actors however Cohen stood out the most for me.
Overall, this adaptation was a miss when it could have been such a confectionery of sweetness and delight with it’s original story line. As mentioned there were some highlights but overall they are all overshadowed by the poor writing of the reworked script and music along with the uninspiring and unimaginative set design that could have been a true work of art.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory plays at the Orpheum Theatre through Hennepin Theatre Trust now through March 17.