Capitol Theatre, Sydney
January 11, 2019

If I had any doubts about whether the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel, would appeal to children, I only had to look at the boy aged around nine or 10 sitting next to us, whose delight said it all. He had already told us beforehand that he knew the book and had seen both the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, and the 2005 movie starring Johnny Depp. At the end of the show, he was grinning from ear to ear, thrilled at some of the special effects and having enjoyed it all.

Ryan Yeates and Paul Slade Smith. Photograph © Jeff Busby

I wasn’t as blown away by the musical as him; act one takes time to hit its groove, the staging feels rather low-budget, and some of the songs are forgettable. But it’s still an enjoyable show and very well performed in this Australian production, which has its premiere season in Sydney.

With a book by David Greig, and songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), the musical first opened in London’s West End in 2013 in a lavishly staged production directed by Sam Mendes and designed by Mark Thompson. Reviews were mixed but it ran for three years. The 2017 Broadway production, directed by Jack O’Brien, reworked the book and added some new songs as well as The Candy Man, Pure Imagination and (I’ve Got) A Golden Ticket written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film – definitely a good move. However, the Broadway production also reduced the spectacle of the set design. Again, reviews were mixed and it ran there for less than a year. The Australian production is based on the Broadway version, and directed by Jack O’Brien who rehearsed the show here.

In a change from the book and the films, the musical begins with Willy Wonka (Paul Slade Smith) emerging to tell us that he is looking for someone to give his factory to. Wonka chocolates are now out of fashion, we discover, and he needs to do something to revive their fortunes. He disguises himself as the candy shop owner where he meets young Charlie Bucket (Ryan Yeates on opening night), from whom we hear more about Wonka and his chocolate. And it is because of a comment from Charlie that Wonka decides to hide the five golden tickets in his confectionary, tickets that will earn their finders a tour of the factory.

Structurally, this rewriting weakens the tension of the drama; it’s not until the very end of the book and films that we discover Wonka is looking for someone to inherit his factory. Here it’s given away immediately. The change also diminishes the impact of Wonka’s entry when he arrives to greet the golden ticket winners – which is such a stunning moment in the film, since he been mysteriously reclusive until then.

From there, the story is largely the same as the four obnoxious children get their just desserts on their journey through the factory, leaving the honest Charlie – who, like Wonka himself, has a wonderfully vivid imagination – to inherit the factory. There is some updating, with references to smart phones, product branding and the like cleverly included.

Jake Fehily, Octavia Barron Martin and ensemble cast. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Dahl is well-known for the dark streak in his writing, and that is very much in evidence in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Wonka being slightly sinister and surreal, allowing the horrid children to suffer sticky fates in the manner of a cautionary tale. The musical has fun and games with this aspect, pushing some of these scenarios even further. Violet Beauregard, for example, doesn’t just expand into a purple-coloured blueberry, she explodes. Veruca Salt’s ending, in a scene with giant ballet-dancing squirrels, is also far more dramatic than falling down a shoot with the bad nuts. (Her song Veruca’s Nutcracker Sweet, however, doesn’t have the same power as I Want It Now! in the film.)

The first act of the musical is solid without really soaring as it sets up the story. We meet Charlie’s desperately poor family – his mother (Lucy Maunder) who works night and day to keep them alive on cabbage soup, and his four grandparents, including his much-loved Grandpa Joe (Tony Sheldon), who have been bed-ridden for decades.

We are also introduced to the first four children who have won golden tickets: Augustus Gloop (Jake Fehily), an enormous Bavarian boy who loves nothing more than eating, particularly sausages, and his equally portly, cheery mother (Octavia Barron Martin); Veruca Salt (Karina Russell), here portrayed as a Russian girl dressed as a ballerina who bosses her father (Stephen Anderson) around in a ferocious fashion, throwing a tantrum if she doesn’t get what she wants; the gum-chewing Violet Beauregard (Monette McKay), a Californian “Queen of Pop” and her adoring father (Madison McKoy); and, from Iowa, the brattish, screen-addicted Mike Teavee (Harrison Riley) and his pill-popping mother (Jayde Westaby) who is dressed in a 1950s outfit, with a hip flask in her handbag.

Harrison Riley and Jayde Westaby. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The show finds its feet in the second act, and while the set designs are often modest, with video projections to help set the scene, there is plenty of humour to keep you engaged. The flashiest bit of staging in the factory is the opening scene with glitzy-looking edible grass, trees and plants – but the brown piece of fabric hanging down to suggest the chocolate waterfall really does look pretty naff. Still, the show is all about imagination, so you just need to bring your own and go with the flow. As for the Oompa Loompas, the way they are portrayed is brilliantly done – which I won’t spoil – with some wonderful choreography by Joshua Bergasse.

American performer Paul Slade Smith is a fabulous Willy Wonka. His tall, lanky frame looks just right in the character’s checked green trousers, vibrant waistcoat, plum jacket and top hat. He combines wit, nuttiness and a slightly dangerous edge in just the right eccentric combination, and he sings extremely well in a role that is deceptively challenging vocally, his rendition of It Must Be Believed to be Seen, a musical highlight.

Ryan Yeates (who shares the role with Oliver Alkhair, Xion Jarvis and Tommy Blair) is impressive as Charlie, conveying his honesty, determination and vivid imagination in an endearing, convincing performance that is strong dramatically and vocally. Tony Sheldon is deliciously funny as Grandpa Joe – and has been allowed to include some amusing Australian references to the likes of Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills in his dialogue. Mrs Bucket is not a large part, but Lucy Maunder is lovely in the role, giving a warm, touching performance and singing her ballad If Your Father Were Here beautifully.

Lucy Maunder, Tony Sheldon and Tommy Blair. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The casting is strong across the board. Having adults in the children’s roles (apart from Charlie) actually works very well. All four performers are terrific, for starters, and it also puts the focus more on Charlie as the one truly honest child. The ensemble is also exceptionally good.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a very different musical to Tim Minchin’s subtler, moving Matilda. It’s brighter and brasher; in fact, a little more darkness wouldn’t go astray. As a piece of theatre, it may not be quite such a delicious confection as a Wonka Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, but it’s still an enjoyable show that put smiles on many faces in the opening night audience.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is playing at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until May 19

TICKETS

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine