By Morgan Politzer
In creating a story known for its classic songs, wonderfully lovable and deplorable characters, and dreams as limitless as the directions of the Great Glass Elevator, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” director Jack O’Brien had some large shoes to fill. And he did not disappoint.
The musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book about the genius chocolatier and the five children lucky enough to find the golden tickets that allow them to enter his secret paradise of pure imagination was gloriously played out on stage at The Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore.
As the curtain rises to reveal the glowing, golden Wonka Factory, the iconic swirly “W” comes into view as the familiar notes of “The Candy Man” effortlessly pour out of Noah Weisberg’s mouth, serving ear candy as sweet as Wonka’s confections. Starring as Willy Wonka himself, Weisberg opens the show as narrator, beginning with a wild, eccentric, lovable energy.
Differing slightly from the classic 1971 version of the tale, Wonka disguises himself as The Candy Man, thus allowing him to narrate and affect the events of the story. It is in disguise as the candy store owner that Wonka first meets our hero Charlie Bucket (played by Rueby Wood at this performance). Wood sings with wide eyes and a voice as pure as the heart of his character as he gives new life to Charlie Bucket. Although Charlie is typically played as a shy, sweet mannered boy, Wood’s version of the character is confident, fierce (although still sweet mannered) and happy – a bold but welcome change that exemplifies Charlie’s internal fighting spirit and desire to be good.
As the run-down Bucket house comes into view, Charlie’s four charming bedridden grandparents (James Young, Jennifer Jill Malenke, Claire Neumann, Benjamin Howes) encourage Charlie’s candy-making dreams as he and Grandpa Joe (James Young) imagine wild inventions and spin tales of long ago and the brilliant Wonka. But however brilliant Wonka may be, the children of Charlie’s generation see him as an old, washed-up wannabe. After learning of his reputation while in disguise as The Candy Man, Wonka creates the Golden Ticket competition, bringing with it the world’s luckiest children.
First introduced to the world is ticket winner August Gloop (Matt Wood) as he and his mother (Kathy Fitzgerald) waddle like dumplings into the spotlight. I will admit that prior to the start of the show, I was skeptical about the believability of the “children” and their ages. However, Wood quickly proved I had nothing to fear and gained my utmost support and trust in the casting of the five lucky winners.
Next up is the fabulously hateful Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen), looking like an angry Ballerina Barbie with her pink sparkly tutu and glittery tiara atop her long blonde curls. Hats off to Cohen for her portrayal of the spoiled Russian princess, as she spends the entirety of the show in ballet pointe shoes, dancing with such grace and beauty that it is difficult to imagine such a wretched and hateful character as being capable of doing anything so lovely.
In contrast to the surprising elegance of Veruca is Miss Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams). The gum chewing queen is now the official Queen of (Bubblegum) Pop, and Williams raps (that is, bubblegum wraps) her story of internet fame and gum chewing records with a voice that has as much attitude as her character’s personality. She combines musical theater and hip hop as she struts her stuff in a sparkly purple monogrammed tracksuit.
While she is a firecracker and burst of energy, lazy boy and television addict Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino) is rude and irritatingly abrupt in the best possible way. His nosey housewife of a mother (Madeleine Doherty) is the perfect neurotic compliment to her baggy-pants-wearing son.
It is here that the highest compliments must be given to scenic and costume designer Mark Thompson and hair, wig and makeup artists Campbell Young Associates. The wild and outlandish looks of each ticket winner so perfectly exemplified everything that makes us love to hate these children.
In the midst of this otherwise gloriously chaotic and brightly colored production, Amanda Rose shines as Mrs. Bucket in her ballad “If Your Father Were Here.” Replacing the iconic ballad “Cheer Up Charlie,” Rose offers a moment of bittersweet sadness and memories of long ago. As she begins with a voice that whispers of contained strength, the ghost of Charlie’s father reminds her to dream as they swirl around the stage for one final dance together.
Closing Act 1 is perhaps the most cheerful number in the show. As the fifth and final Golden Ticket is found under the wrapper of Charlie’s Wonka Wiffle Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight bar, Wood wows with his rendition of “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and reminds audiences of the joy and energy that made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory an icon of childhood dreams. In his excitement to accompany Charlie to Wonka’s factory, Young resembles an excited baby deer learning to walk as Grandpa Joe summons the energy to haul himself out of bed for the first time in decades.
As Act 2 begins, the famous Wonka factory stands proud and gold. The air quivers with excitement as the audience waits with bated breath, perhaps just as eager as the lucky ticket winners to see the inside of the world of pure imagination. Weisberg’s performance would have done Gene Wilder (the original Wonka in the 1971 film) proud as he gives a performance that is the epitome of showmanship. With his legendary purple coat and eccentric behavior, the greatest fictional genius of our time sings about the magic of his creation and the hidden world of decadent sweets.
When the doors of the elusive factory slowly open, the stage becomes a whirlwind of shapes and colors as projections on electronic backdrops spin and swirl as fast as Wonka’s imagination and lexicon of made up words. As Wonka’s edible paradise comes into view, Weisberg’s rendition of “Pure Imagination” washes over the audience like a soft blanket. Thanks to Jeff Sugg’s brilliant projection design, the endless landscape of edible dreams and rainbow sparkles and chocolate waterfalls expands far beyond the confines of the stage, proving that sunshine really can be sprinkled with dew and covered in chocolate and a miracle or two.
No chocolate factory would be complete without the help of the famous Oompa Loompas, which are both a stroke of genius and the stuff of nightmares. While the puppet bodies attached to real people are creative and fun, it takes a few minutes to get past the baby body bibs that dance around the stage as naughty child after naughty child disappears into the depths of the factory. Although the dance of the Oompa Loompas was perfectly disturbing and mildly eerie, I did miss the daunting sound of the classic “Oompa Loompa, doom-pa-dee-do.”
While disappearing into a chocolate waterfall and blowing up like a blueberry do not sound pleasant by any means, perhaps the most disturbing demise is Veruca’s torment by squirrel. As giant squirrels chase her around and engage in a chaotic back and forth ballet routine, it was a bit like watching Chip and Dale’s demonic cousin dance around the stage.
Next up is the impossible shrinking of our favorite television addict and the grand illusion of a million chocolate bar particles floating through time and space. Nosey Mrs. Teavee is (almost) pitiful as she lifts her now-pocket-sized son out of the television set, pulling off maybe one of the best illusions in musical theater history.
While the other spoiled children get their just desserts (some quite literally), Charlie proves himself to be the kindhearted hero the world so desperately needs right now. In front of the shining doors of the factory that holds the key to all of his dreams, Charlie becomes the new Candy Man, reminding us all that if you mix anything with love, it’ll make the world taste good.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Joan Marcus.
Morgan Politzer is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.