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Rueby Wood as Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The New Musical.Joan Marcus/Mirvish

  • Title: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The New Musical
  • Book by: David Greig
  • Music by: Marc Shaiman
  • Lyrics by: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
  • Director: Jack O’Brien
  • Actors: Noah Weisberg, Henry Boshart
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: The Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Jan. 6, 2019


2 out of 4 stars

When will the Oompa Loompas arrive? How will the Oompa Loompas look? We want the Oompa Loompas!

At intermission of the touring production of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical now in Toronto, all the chit-chat in the lobby was about when the diminutive, demonic candy-makers who work for chocolatier Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg) were going to appear.

There wasn’t much else to talk about because very little had really happened in the long, loud first act of this Warner Bros Theatre Ventures-produced musical that melts together Roald Dahl’s classic 1964 children’s book and bits of the 1971 musical movie adaptation into a new, flavourless lump in your pocket.

We are introduced to the poor, 11-year-old Charlie Bucket (Henry Boshart, one of three boys alternating the part) who lives with Mrs. Bucket (Amanda Rose) and four bedridden grandparents. (Mr. Bucket has, apparently, kicked it to boost our sympathy for the boy in this version penned by Scottish playwright David Greig.)

Young Charlie is obsessed with the reclusive Willy Wonka though he can afford but one bar a year − and loiters around a local candy shop (where Willy Wonka works in disguise) sniffing the merchandise wistfully.

When a contest is announced, Charlie wants desperately to find one of five Golden Tickets that provide entry to Wonka’s factory.

As we await around for that eventuality, the four other kids who find Golden Tickets are introduced. In this version, two are cultural stereotypes from cultures we still don’t mind stereotyping: Veruca Salt (the funny Jessica Cohen), a demanding ballet-dancing daughter of a Russian oligarch; and Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), a fat, sausage-eating Bavarian in lederhosen who burps and farts a bunch.

The other two are Americans: Violet Beauregarde (Madeleine Doherty), a gum-addicted teen whose real vice seems to be Instagram; and Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino), who is now a hacker as well as a TV addict. (Director Jack O’Brien’s production, designed a little dully by Mark Thompson, lives in a time-space warp, a British-looking America where the internet exists, but a fancy candy bar is still a buck.)

Each of these “bad” kids is introduced with songs written by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (the team behind Hairspray) clearly intended to be satirical, perhaps inspired by songwriter Tim Minchin’s work on the excellent Matilda musical.

Mostly, however, they are forgettable or hard to follow. Mrs. Teavee, inexplicably costumed like its the 1950s, has a frenetic patter song about Ritalin and Xanax and gin that I couldn’t make heads or tails of.

While Dahl’s story is iconic and I, for one, loved it as a kid, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a strange plot when an underwhelming, over-amplified show like this gives you the chance to stop and think about it as an adult. It’s about a boy who wants to lift himself out of poverty by winning the lottery – and does; and then it’s like a children’s slasher movie with kids biting it in imaginative ways at the hands of a mad candy man.

Is it an allegory for the chocolate industry’s history of colonialism and child labour – with the Oompa Loompas standing in to wreak revenge upon first-world consumers?

The second half of the Charlie musical was entertaining enough to make me stop trying to understand it. Though, given Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee are more interesting than the overly sweet Charlie, it’s disappointing when they get bumped off. She’s a trained Russian ballerina who obviously has discipline; he’s kind of Willy Wonka’s Wikileaks. Surely, they could have colluded against Wonka successfully.

Instead, we’re asked to root for Charlie, because he’s the title character and he’s penniless and the actor playing him seems to really, really want us to. Greig has emphasized the boy’s imagination, which allows the show to work in the song Pure Imagination from the movie (which, like The Candy Man and The Oompa Loompa Song, are by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley), but it’s unclear why Veruca and Mike’s own artistic talents get punished while his are rewarded.

There’s a suggestion that Willy Wonka could be a father figure for Charlie, but this never really clicks given how close he already is to his grandfather Joe (James Young). (Charlie’s loving mother and three other grandparents disappear at intermission never be seen again.)

It doesn’t help that, as Wonka, Weisberg – who has a passing resemblance to Gene Wilder – gives an unsatisfyingly wonky performance. It’s self-consciously weird, odd in an affected way, pulled in all directions at once.

But what of the Oompa Loompas, you ask? Tell us about the Oompa Loompas.

Well, I must admit there were cheers upon their arrival. I may have let out a cheer myself.

There is puppetry involved, but they are not puppets, exactly.

They are funny and they are awesome and they are the only part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that does not disappoint a bit, so I won’t spoil anything about them for those of you who are inevitably dragged to the show over the holidays.

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