Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
12 December 2015 (Sat), West End
My second chocolate factory this trip after Menier. I hadn’t bothered to see this in any of my previous trips but went along this time with a friend, figuring it would be harmless enough. I imagined that they would darken it, being British and all, and knew they had jettisoned the movie music for a new score. That score, though, was by the Hairspray team, which had me a bit hopeful.
To start with the very good, the sets and staging were colorful and inventive throughout. The introduction of the kids via TV news sketches was a fantastic idea, including the funny pastiche music accompanying each of them. (I wish they’d put as much thought into the scenes getting rid of the kids, which seemed rushed and a bit too pat.) The much-awaited Oompa-Loompas were also hysterical. A big hand to set and costume designer Mark Thompson and puppet designer Jamie Harrison, who either have wild imaginations or great drugs. Video projections were used to good advantage in many scenes. The show as a whole looked terrific.
The book was a big letdown, especially in the protracted scenes at home prior to Charlie getting the golden ticket. I assume that was motivated by a desire to save the factory scenes for Act II, but it dragged way beyond its sell date, as amusing as some of the exchanges were. And I’m not so sure about showing someone actually dropping the money that Charlie picks up to buy the winning chocolate; in the book, it felt more like it was left by providence – or that’s how it seemed to me as a kid. Here, he is unmistakably using someone else’s money, and while it’s true that he’s shown calling after the person and trying to return it, it ruins the moment, the sense that someone up there is looking after good little children. A little more creative thinking would have helped here. Also, they forgot to give much of a personality to Willy Wonka, who comes off as bland. He got a strong late-show boost when he was one-on-one with Charlie in the elevator scene (helped by an awesome song, as below), and more of that would have been welcome.
The saddest part was the terrible score, which basically relied on funny rhymes rather than situation and character. It chucked sincerity for jokiness in drearily repetitive patterns. It was like special material for comedy shows, with no noticeable melodies to lift it. It became irritating after a while, and I wondered if the kids were even getting it. The title of the opening number, “Almost Nearly Perfect”, echoed that of the opening (“Practically Perfect”) of the stage version of Mary Poppins, which seemed eerily appropriate given that both shows are clueless in how to connect with children other than big stage effects. “Pure Imagination”, the one song retained from the movie, came as a shock at the end because it was incomparably better in every way that what came before. I honestly don’t remember much about the movie music – I haven’t seen the film in over 40 years – but I don’t know what compelled them to write new songs if this was representative of the old. I’m curious to go back and listen to the film score. But once was enough for the show music. Stripped of all the stage effects, the show is a mediocre shadow of its source material. I really think kids deserve better.