Friday 16 August 2019

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Musical Review

What: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
When: 9 August - 3 November 2019
Where: Her Majesty's Theatre
Book by: David Greig
Music by: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by: Jack O'Brien
Orchestration by: Doug Besterman
Featuring: Benjamin Belsey, Lucy Maunder, Tony Sheldon, Elijah Slavinskis, Paul Slade Smith, Edgar Stirling, Lenny Thomas, and Lachlan Young.
Choreography by: Joshua Bergasse
Design by: Mark Thompson
Lighting by: Japhy Weideman
Sound by: Andrew Keister
Projections by: Jeff Sugg
Puppets by: Basil Twist
Lenny Thomas and Tony Sheldon
It is time to indulge your sweet tooth and head on down to Her Majesty's for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. A night of shockingly funny spectacle and lots of laughs, this production is a hoot.

I don't know how you grow up in the modern Western world and not at least have a passing familiarity with the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book, the films, the golden tickets...even Cadbury now have a real Wonka Bar. It would be beyond belief to think it would not be made into a musical and so it has, and here it is.

This musical began it's life in 2010 and debuted in London in 2013. It had a decent run but also didn't hit the heights of imagination. In 2017 it was reworked with a new director (O'Brien) for Broadway and is still being tweaked as it moves across the world. I reckon they have pretty much got it right now.

I admit I am not a musical theatre addict so it may not be surprising that I will say this show is fabulous when critics of the Sydney season were so harsh but here I go. I am not overly impressed by all the sparkle and the spangle. What I look for in a show is a strong story told using all of the elements of theatre making and all of those elements working together to support each other. This is what you get in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But don't worry - there is also a bevy of fun and funny surprises along the way just as you would expect in Wonkaland.

This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leans more towards the family fantasy of the 1971 film. Having said that, there is definite darkness there and this is what makes it feel like a secret night of naughty for us grown ups while the kids are enjoying all the colour and movement.

Yes, there are the twee moments, such as when Grandpa Joe (Sheldon) makes jokes about his age and references Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills but this is what musicals do and you can hate on it or - as I did - groan a bit and then laugh at the inevitability. This jaded tolerance is the perfect precursor to allow yourself to sink into the glorious blasphemy which sits below all of Willy Wonka's (Slade Smith) charm and affability.

Perhaps the biggest change to the story is in the musical Wonka seems to have selected Charlie long before he (or Charlie really) ever comes up with the idea for the competition. Yes, it telegraphs the outcome but we already know how the story goes and this way we don't have to pretend surprise. It is all about the journey as they say.

Sheldon is great fun as Grandpa Joe - full of energy and life contrary to his supposed aged and crippled state, and Slade Smith is excellent as Willy Wonka. This is not a dance spectacular. This production is all about great lyrics being sung well and I don't know anybody with the dental dexterity of Slade Smith in the songs which go 100 miles a minute! The top of Act 2 is a wonder as he gallops through 'Strike That, Reverse It'. My poor brain couldn't keep up but it had nothing to do with the delivery or the sound system which is as clear as a bell (except for 'Queen of Pop' for some reason).

I loved all of the children, but most of all I loved their dreadful fates as they disregarded all of Wonka's warnings. The true genius of Slade Smith's Wonka is he becomes so very, very human as he gives in to the understanding he won't be listened to and what will happen next is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow morning.

The Gloop family (Octavia Barron Martin and Jake Fehily) are adorable, and the Salt's (Stephen Anderson and Karina Russel) are satisfyingly autocratic. The Beauregarde's (Madison McKoy and Jayme-Lee Hanekon) do the Kardashian's proud!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is full of sleights of hand and fun illusions. Violet Beauregarde's evolution into a giant purple ball and then bursting had me in stitches but the true coup d'etat comes in Veruka Salt's demise. In this production Veruka is a prima ballerina and her encounter with the sorting squirrels is straight out of The Nutcracker Ballet. For those of us who get that reference this is the pinnacle display of why this show is so good.

It is the dramaturgy, people, and it pokes up it's head in moments of brilliance all across the show. For example Mrs Green (Joseph Naim), the rotting vegetable seller, is a hoot and a fun reference to the age of pantomime. The Oompa Loompas are also resolved in a very clever and satisfying way and one of the great decisions for this musical is to leave out many of their songs. They are there when they are needed and they are gone when they add nothing to the story.

Traditionally one of the main morals of this tale has been said to be 'bad things happen to children who don't behave' but in this musical this is not true because at the very end Charlie does not heed his warning and yet he wins the kingdom. I think it is the song 'It Has To Be Believed To Be Seen' which tells us the truth of this show and is the idea which resonates across our post-truth world. So much of the sparkle and spangle being sold to us by our leaders - social, political, theological, geographic, economic... - requires faith in the message or the mouth because there is not a whole lot of evidence to back up their statements of 'fact'.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the whole package. The production values are fantastic but more to the point they do what they do perfectly and it all points to the story not at itself. The performances are all consistently brilliant. The dancing and choreography is clean and precise although this is not really a dancing musical. The singing is perfection.

Part of the brilliance is when it works best is when all of this is left behind! One of the scenes which had me laughing the most was the journey through the wind tunnel. The whole journey is done with mime. Not a single prop or set piece is in place but we know exactly what is happening to everyone at every moment and it is bellyachingly funny.

Okay, I will complain about one thing. I think the glass elevator should rise faster. The end of the show, musically speaking, really slows down into a kind of lullaby tempo. It is beautiful but I was tired and suddenly, at the end, all I wanted to do was go to sleep. This will be great for the parents because their kids will be ready for bed!

On the night I went Lenny Thomas was playing Charlie and he was terrific. I also saw Elijah Slavinskis at the media call and he was equally as brilliant. I suspect no matter which night you attend you will love whoever of the 5 boys playing Charlie you get.

5 Stars

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