Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, music & lyrics by Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, and Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York, April 2017.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always, and will always, come down to one character, and it’s not Charlie. The person who can make or break any production (musical or movie) of this classic, is Willy Wonka. And in the Broadway production at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, Christian Borle gives a superstar performance.
Borle, a two-time Tony Award winner and Broadway veteran known for Something Rotten, Legally Blonde and Falsettos, plays the chocolate confectioner and he has found the perfect recipe.
To play Wonka correctly, you have to balance differing parts of his personality. Borle managed to achieve the monumental task of equaling Gene Wilder from the original 1971 film while not copying him. Borle makes his Wonka equal parts deranged, silly, malicious, and sweet. You can’t help but keep your eyes glued to see what he’ll do next. He dazzled with his song-and-dance hoofing, his energetic strutting, his winning smile, and delightful singing voice. Borle’s performance certainly warrants Tony consideration.
Other standout performances included the engaging Trista Dollison and the hilarious Alan H. Green as Violet and her father (updated cleverly for this version) along with ballet dancer Emma Pfaeffle and the booming-voiced Ben Crawford as Veruca and her father. The legendary Jon Rubinstein was a comical Uncle Joe.
This production by Jack O’Brien does have some problems. The set is minimal, which is sufficient for Charlie’s house and outside the factory, but when we reach the iconic candy room scene (famous for its acres of edible trees and a chocolate waterfall), we’re shown a smallish box containing unimposing scenery. The nasty edge to Roald Dahl’s story — the candy man’s sadistic dispatch of people who annoy him — may be off-putting to some critics, but the way they’re destroyed is hilariously spectacular. Most kids today will take this in stride.
The music is by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and is pleasant throughout, and genuinely exciting in the finale of Act I. Two of the songs written by Newley and Bricusse for the old film are happily retained: “The Candy Man Can” and “Pure Imagination.” Some of the jokes are immature. Ultimately though, this musical provides an enjoyable night out for the family. With heavy lifting from madman extraordinaire Christian Borle, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has plenty of laughs, some sweet moments, and puts a smile on your face for two hours.