More style than substance in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
16th August 2019

Her Majesty's Theatre

If the musical Charlie and The Chocolate Factory were a chocolate bar, you'd keep the wrapper and bin the contents when no one was looking.

As a stage confection it looks glorious, with impossibly high production values and plenty of inventive razzle-dazzle, but what's inside leaves you with an empty feeling – and some of the updated ingredients taste rather strange.

The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cast performing on stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.Credit:AAP

It really suffers in comparison to Matilda: Tim Minchin's poignant, impishly clever adaptation captured the essence of Roald Dahl's genius with nimble delight. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a more heavy-handed affair.

One issue is pacing. We don't get to the factory until after interval, and you might need your Ritalin handy for the build-up.

Eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka (Paul Slade Smith, who channels twinkle and kookiness reminiscent of Gene Wilder's performance in the original film) has disguised himself as a candy shop owner in a downtrodden London neighbourhood.

From the outset we learn he needs an heir apparent, and meeting Charlie Bucket (on opening night, Lenny Thomas) inspires his mad idea for a worldwide competition.

Nasty children and bad parents snap up four of five golden tickets, amid a media frenzy, with each getting a song. The yodelling, wurst-twirling Gloops (Octavia Barron Martin and Jake Fehily) are the least changed and, if you don't mind camp lampoons of national stereotypes, the funniest.

Meanwhile, Veruca Salt (Karina Russell) has been transformed into the ballerina daughter of a Russian oligarch (Stephen Anderson); Mike Teavee (Harrison Riley) is a bored tech addict with an alcoholic mother (Jayde Westaby); Violet Beauregard (Jayme-Lee Hanekom) becomes a narcissistic social media celebrity whose stage father (Madison McKoy) shares her determination to go viral.

That's all contrasted with the Bucket household, where poverty vies with sentimentality and charmlessly overplayed humour for the most annoying aspect of a disadvantaged background.

Charlie and Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the musical. Credit:AAP

Lucy Maunder as Charlie's mother, for instance, has a gratuitous dream ballet with her absent husband. And you can hear a pin drop whenever Tony Sheldon's Grandpa Joe tells an overweening Aussie joke, in a voice he immortalised as the heroine Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical.

Things improve in the second half, thanks to stage wizardry – notably a dancing chorus of Oompa Loompas brought to life through ingenious full-body puppetry, Paul Slade Smith's antics as Wonka, and some familiar songs including Pure Imagination.

You can't fault the design: marvellously bright, detailed costumes, together with state-of-the-art sets, lighting, visual projections and inspired choreography, all combine to create an onstage wonderland.

Yet the beating core of Dahl's tale – Charlie's kindness and humility are what wins the day, in the end – gets squeezed by the musical's need to succeed. And that leaves the cast desperately acting, singing and dancing their hearts out, trying to carry a show that's too focused on showing off to remember the importance of the simple things.

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