Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a musical delicacy in London's West End
Sam Mendes, of Skyfall fame, directs a surprisingly fresh adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl story, breathing new vigor into a familiar narrative.
I know there's a tenuous link at best between musical comedy and comic book films, but Sam Mendes has experience adapting genre media, most famously in the case of Road to Perdition, the 2002 screen version of Max Allan Collins' graphic novel. Willy Wonka himself is a character that spans many mediums, from prose to video games and even to amusement park rides, and is universally recognized enough to bear relevance in any setting.
I was lucky enough to receive an official invite to the Opening Press Night of the new musical theatre adaptation of Charlie at London's famous Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The show takes the place of the popular Shrek the Musical, which ran at drury Lane for 715 performances from 2011-2013. Drury lane seems to be London's official venue for family-themed spectacle.
There was a lot of star power on-hand for this opening: I happened to be in the vicinity of Sarah Jessica Parker, who brought her hubby Matthew Broderick and son James to the event. Sir Elton John was on hand, as well as Sherlock villain Andrew Scott (Moriarty). Comedians Bill Bailey, Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig, and Kevin Eldon (one of the stars of Nick Frost's Hyperdrive) were seen schmoozing outside after the performance.
But the night mainly belonged to the creators, some huge names among them: Sam Mendes (director of Skyfall and Oscar winner for American Beauty); composer Marc Shaiman (Hairspray, Sleepless in Seattle, Patch Adams, South Park Movie); lyricist Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Smash); and Scottish dramatist David Greig.
The first thing I tell everyone about this show is that it raises the bar in terms of theatrical spectacle. I'm saying this as someone who was blown away by the sheer scale and creativity of the design of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark, with it's giant sliding LED's and Cirque de Soleil-esque aerial stunt work. Charlie however takes things to a whole new level! The most impressive part of it is how the special effects amaze, while remaining intrinsic and integrated with the story.
The first moment that truly grabbed my imagination was the middle of Act One. Up to this point the script was treading familiar ground in introducing Charlie and his family, and setting the stage with Wonka's pivotal offer of five golden tickets to visit his famous factory. It is when Charlie's dad, sympathetically played by Jack Shalloo, sets up the old TV set to watch coverage of the Wonka contest, where the effects begin to bewilder. A gigantic television screen slides forward out of the backdrop, illuminating inside a diorama where a perky new reporter announces Augustus Gloop as the first golden ticket holder. Suddenly I realized that the actors were inside the massively larger than life screen, playing the scene in real time! This momentous achievement of scale and seamless design only gives an indication of what's to come, and I really commend designer Mark Thompson on the whole creation.
Similar vignettes follow to introduce each of the kids. This is where Shaiman truly starts to share his pedigree and versatility as a tonal showman. each of the kids has their own distinctive background and musical style, performing solo's that aptly reveal character and function to the narrative. The standout for me was Mike Teavee, whose futuristic, drum-n-bass infused video game music, combined with expert hip-hop cum martial arts dance steps brings the character, like the whole show, into our own era.
As I mentioned, with two famous films depicting this story already, the narrative always hangs on the edge of redundancy. That was actually my main criticism of Spider-man is that it's too bogged down in retelling its origin story, and takes too much away from Julie Taymor's innovative brilliance; but I digress. In this edition, Greig and Mendes smartly keep the pace flowing through expository scenes, trying to hurtle us towards the emotional touch points of the story, and they are successful for the most part. The source material is a handicap in that we know it too well, but the music and the design keep us guessing all the way til the last embellishment.
I'd be remiss in not mentioning Willy Wonka himself, but this is not by any accident. Mendes saves Wonka until the final scene of the first act, his legend slowly building in our imaginations until our eventual arrival at the Chocolate factory, at which point the famous chocolatier bursts through his own front door, imposingly announcing his arrival!
Imagine, if you're an actor, the pressure of walking out on stage every night to attempt to match the expectations created by two superlative actors: Johnny Depp and Gene Wilder. I am not kidding when I declare that Douglas Hodge more than lives up to the pressure. Douglas Hodge creates what is now my favorite depiction of Wonka. Hodge is not famous in cinematic terms, but his pedigree on stage is undeniable, having won Tony and Olivier awards for his performance in La cage aux Folles (the Birdcage). What Hodge does with Wonka is bring an intimidating nastiness to the part, combined with the suaveness of a true Broadway song and dance man. he appears to be on a knife-edge, keeping you guessing what his intentions are, in spite of your foreknowledge of the story's resolution. This is what a superb performance, and adaptation, are meant to do, and it is here where this play distinguishes itself the most from its screen predecessors.
Fans of the 1971 film will be satisfied to know that there is indeed a rendition of Leslie Bricusse's "Pure Imagination" in the Act Two denouement. Hodge brings his own flavor of bittersweet emotionality to the tune, in his way imbuing it with a modernity and encapsulation of the handing-off of his generation's collective dreams to a younger world.
I can't wrap up this review without mentioning the Oompa Loompa's! I was truly suspicious of what potential cop-outs this element could entail. Let me say that the reveal of Wonka's diminutive servants is one of the show's constant delights. Their portrayal integrates the show's ample chorus in what can only be described as self-puppetry. There's a moment in act two where the Oompa Loompa's are seen to be riding around the set on balletic squirrels which had me in stitches. I was a huge fan of Burton's Oompa's, but these characters blow that portrayal sky high with unending variety!
By now I'm sure you can tell I am crazy about the show. I promise I'm not a shill or an employee of Warner Brothers: I'm just a massive fan of entertainment. Just to contextualize what producers WB have on their hands here: the world's most profitable musical, Phantom of the Opera, has made over $2 billion worldwide with its productions and tours, making it the most successful entertainment ever. WB may be crying over the weakness of its post-Harry Potter, non-Batman cinematic properties, but it may have blasted its way to an even bigger gold mine in the form of this musical. Don't be surprised to see the show fast-tracked to Broadway.
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