Inspired by Roald Dahl’s own boyhood experiences as a taste tester for a chocolate company in England, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory follows the adventures of a young Charlie Bucket (charmingly portrayed on opening night by Ryan Yeates), who wins one of five tickets in competition to tour Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. The other four winners meet bizarre endings during the tour, but Charlie survives to earn a very special prize from Willie Wonka.
If you’re a Roald Dahl enthusiast, you no doubt know all this, so your interest in seeing this musical is probably to see how the story translates as a stage musical. However, if like this reviewer, you’ve never read the book, or have only seen one of the two movies inspired by the book, be assured a treat awaits you, because, freed of the need to compare the musical to the book or films, you can simply delight in the delicious silliness of Roald Dahl’s subversive ideas and be entranced by some spectacular stage gee-whizzery.
To be truthful though, there isn’t a lot of magic in the first half, except for the paper plane which drew excited applause. Charlie Bucket’s home, in which he lives with his struggling mother and four grandparents, is represented by a rather cramped piece of scenery which is wheeled on an off stage, as is Willie Wonka’s shop.
However some delightful characters are introduced, including Charlie’s hard-working mother, Mrs Bucket (Lucy Maunder) and his Grandpa Joe (Tony Sheldon, who offers a wonderful ‘star’ performance in a relatively minor role). There’s also the mysterious, silver-voiced Willie Wonka, winningly portrayed by tall, lanky Paul Slade Smith, who played Grandpa George in the Broadway production of this show.
Then there are the other four winners and their parents, each more cringe-worthy than the last, but, although funny, played in such a broad comic-book manner that it is hard to relate to any of them as characters, which is just as well, because each comes to a sticky end in the second half.
And indeed, it’s the second half when the magic sets in as the audience is transported into Willie Wonka’s world. Enchanting special effects and projections, vicious squirrels, the great glass elevator and especially the Oompa Loompas, marvellously choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, set the show soaring.
Some of the songs are familiar, especially The Candy Man and Pure Imagination. A charming ballad, If Your Father Were Here, affectingly sung by Lucy Maunder, Willie Wonka’s anthem, It Must Be Believed to Be Seen and of course The Oompa Loompa Song, linger in the mind. Elsewhere the songs are tuneful and serve the story well. The costumes are colourful, and the choreography for the hard-working ensemble of supporting characters is cleverly joyful.
Judging from the enthusiastic reception from the many youngsters in the audience at the opening night performance, Director, Jack O’Brien has definitely hit a bull’s eye with this thoroughly likeable and entertaining production of a long-time favourite.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Capitol Theatre, Campbell Street, Haymarket (Sydney)
Performance: Friday 11 January 2019 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 9 June 2019
Information and Bookings: www.charliethemusical.com.au
Image: The Australian production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Bill Stephens OAM