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Theatre Review: Charlie is a chocolate coated Catastrophe

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Have you ever left a chocolate bar in the car on a hot summer day, only to find it melted when you come back to it hours later? Do you remember your mixed feeling of disgust and disappointment?

That’s the best way to sum up Mirvish’s colossal misfire that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This isn’t the Charlie you know from your childhood. This is the astonishingly bad new musical currently boring audiences at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.

The horrendous show is based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, and comes from its unsuccessful Broadway run last year. For the unfamiliar few, the story is of young Charlie Bucket, a boy who finds a golden ticket in a chocolate bar from a contest. His prize? A tour of dessert maestro Willy Wonka’s fantastic candy factory.

This isn’t the first Dahl book that’s been adapted for the stage. Unlike the 2013 hit Matilda (which had a different creative team and writers,) all the whimsy and joy of the books have been sucked out of the show. Sadly, that sense of wonder has been replaced with modern topical references.

 Photo: Mirvish Productions
Photo: Mirvish Productions

Worse still, these modern updates to the story are inappropriate for a family musical. The foul language and contemporary zeitgeist robs the story of it’s timelessness and charm. Taking your children to this version of Charlie is the fastest and easiest way to ruin your family’s holiday fun night out.

So what specifically makes the show so painful to watch? It’s hard to know where to start. The set, script, direction, supporting actors, pace, story structure all have glaring issues. But the overall cynical tone is the most obvious problem.

The musical's tone is crass and depressing

The production feels artificial in appearance and mood. Because the show is so discouraging in its events and unlikable characters, it never becomes any fun. Instead of sweet, it feels like a candy left out in the sun, left to mould, leaving whoever is tricked into sampling it feeling nauseous.

Jokes don’t add much humour to the mix, either. Many of them are snarky instead of clever, while others are too similar to one another. Most of them are about how old and crabby Charlie’s grandparents are, wishing only to meet death faster.

Or worse, they’re about how annoyingly selfish the other golden ticket winners are. But that’s okay - it’s not like they make the same joke four times about the cheeky name “Cherry Sundae” as a reporter for Chocolate News tonight! (If that wasn’t enough to make your eyes roll, the four jokes all happen within a few minutes in back-to-back scenes.)

The rest of the book is filled with tasteless changes to the story. One noticeable change is the naughty children, who normally learn lessons from disobeying Mr. Wonka’s rules, instead are killed onstage in progressively more graphic ways.

Not exactly what most folks would call family fun.

The entire first act is uneventful: almost every song is about how annoying everyone’s kids are except Charlie. Another three numbers are dedicated to how poor he and his family are. The second scene in Charlie’s impoverished home lasts an agonizing 20 minutes.

 Photo: Mirvish Productions
Photo: Mirvish Productions

For some credit where credit is due, the child playing Charlie at my performance, Henry Boshart, is a talented young man. He moves with confidence onstage in the most focused performance of anyone. It’s too bad half his dialogue makes the character seem to need psychiatric therapy from his incurable obsession with chocolate bars.

Charlie himself is a standout in a hit-or-miss cast

The rest of the cast doesn’t match Charlie’s spunk. Noah Weisberg’s Willy Wonka is humourless until act two's factory tour begins. None of his jokes land before that, and his wacky behaviour is artificial in his first song. The only thing creeper than Wonka is Charlie’s never-explained obsession with Wonka as his untoppable idol.

As for the ensemble, their singing and dancing is adequate. But it’s not flawless either - and some actors are just bad. You can’t appreciate character choices if they’re tastelessly exaggerated or the song and dance isn’t in sync.

For example, Mike Teavee’s drug-crazed and wine obsessed mother (Madeline Doherty) delivers every line likes she’s a psychopathic Vanna White. Augustus Gloop’s mother (Kathy Fitzgerald) has a Bavarian accent so painfully fake you can’t understand full sentences she’s singing.

 Photo: Mirvish Productions
Photo: Mirvish Productions

Beyond the company, several aspects of the technical design feel unfinished. The costumes are occasionally neat, but for a blockbuster musical, the set is cheap. There’s a few physical pieces, but otherwise the “sets” are badly animated projections. For a show that appears to have wasted a colossal amount of money, the screens feel like a lazy solution.

One of the few compelling things is the clever costuming for the Oompa-Loompas, Wonka’s legion of factory workers. This chorus coming to life is the best part of the performance. But I won’t spoil any more for those unfortunately going to the rest of the show.

Finally, the sluggish music remains unchanged from earlier versions of the show. Composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman have created one of the most forgettable scores in music theatre history. It has none of the fun or pizzaz of their best-known 2002 hit Hairspray.

Most of the rhymes are trite and feel more like nails on a chalkboard than a clever storytelling device. The only whistle-worthy numbers are the songs stolen from the 1971 film based on the same book. (Even these were only added during Broadway previews after poor audience reactions last spring.)

It's an overall disappointing production

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes a strong case for the worst production in the history of Mirvish Theatres. My companion fell asleep during act one. The couple in front of us didn’t come back after intermission. Modesty forbids me printing some of the jokes audience members were making in line for the bar.

It’s boring, boring, boring to watch. Many of the children in the theatre were squirming from boredom, and some jokes actually made them upset. (Children with a fear of squirrels may also become deeply traumatized after one particular dance scene.)

Grandpa George, never seen after act one, jokes more than once how imminent his meeting with the grave is. Most of the children meet that very fate in act two. While death may be a bit extreme, once they leave the stage, all I could think was “At least they don’t need to watch the rest of this disaster.”

If you’re looking for a family musical this season, go see the far superior School of Rock a couple blocks away. It may also be a bit crass, but that comes with the premise. As for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? It’s the obviously wrong ingredient for a full-on chocolate meltdown.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

0.5 out of 4 Stars

Rated 6+. 2hrs 35mins. Musical Comedy.

Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman. Book by David Greig.

Directed by Jack O’Brien.

Starring Henry Boshart, Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood alternating the role of Charlie. Also starring Noah Weisberg, James Young and Amanda Rose.

Now Playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto, ON. Runs until Jan. 6, 2018. Tickets range $39-179. Tickets available online with Ticketking or by calling 416-872-1212.