Golden ticket treat

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (John Frost for Crossroads Live)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

September 2 – October 3

After being within days of opening night at the start of pandemic lockdown #1 last year, the achocalypse of multi-Helpmann Award nominated musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” has finally made it back to QPAC, and as experience of its magical wonder reveals, it has certainly been worth the wait.

The fanciful story starts with Willy Wonker (Stephen Anderson), the eccentric owner of the Wonka Chocolate Factory, explaining to the audience that he’s searching for a suitable successor to run his empire (‘The Candy Man’), which he will do, it later emerges, through running a competition that will see five golden tickets hidden in chocolate bars across the world. With Wonker working in disguise at one of the global brand’s small stores, initial songs run through without much dialogue as interlude as the audience is also introduced to the story’s protagonist, Charlie Bucket (Flynn Nowlan on opening night, in a role shared with Phineaus Knickerbocker, Cooper Matthews and Edgar Stirling) and his poor family’s life of cabbage soup, Grandpa Joe’s (Robert Grubb) tall tales and Charlie’s dreams of inventing the next big thing in confectionary.

Then, as the story works its way through Act One, there is revelation of the five all-access golden ticket winners from around the world, who, along with a parent, have opportunity to tour Wonka’s factory. There’s the gluttonous Bavarian beefcake, Augustus Gloop (Jaxon Graham Wilson) and his mother (Octavia Barron Martin), the tenacious, pampered Russian ballerina princess Veruca Salt (Karina Russell) and her always-obliging father (Simon Russell), the self-absorbed social media celebrity and self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Pop’ (in nod to her gum-chewing) Violet Beauregard (Tarisai Vushe) and her enthusiastic father manager (Madison McKoy), the angsty tech-addict gamer Mike Teavee (Taylor Scanlan) who hacked his way to receipt of a golden ticket, along with his neurotic suburban housewife mother (Johanna Allen); and eventually, Charlie and his Grandpa Joe.

Staging is cleverly compact, initially at least, in creation of the Bucket’s home, where Charlie and his widowed mother (Lucy Maunder) live with Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine (Katie McKee), but also Grandpa George (James Haxby) and Grandma Georgina (Ana Mitsikas).

Monograms are cleverly woven into the design, not just in the façade of the Wonker factory, but into Charlie’s ramshackle residence, Violet’s velour tracksuit and the Louis Vuitton pattern that backdrops Veruca’s appearance. And then, in Act Two staging is all colour and movement as it takes us on a mesmerising joyride through the incredible inventions within the chocolate factory.  

The resulting first appearance of the Oompa-Loompa factor workers, imported by Wonka direct from Loompaland, becomes a real highlight, drawing joyful reaction from those unfamiliar with the on-stage version of Roald Dahl’s beloved 1964 children’s novel. It is to everyone’s delight that they appear a number of times during Act Two to sing about the children’s poor behaviour.

Visual effects also provide a little bit of magic, especially around the dynamic introduction of Mike Teavee with accompanying technicolour chronicle of his mother’s ‘50s housewife style of substance use in attempt to cope with Mike’s cyber antics. Also, when Mike’s obsession with electronics overcomes him and he is shrunk down to the size of a chocolate bar after being sent into Chocolate Television, projections show him jumping from screen to screen in full video game mode.

Japhy Weideman’s lighting design similarly works well to razzle dazzle us as required, such as when Charlie’s discovery of a golden ticket after buying a Wonka Bar with some dropped money, sees Grandpa Joe determining to get out of bed for the first time in years to accompany him on the factory tour (‘I’ve Got A Golden Ticket’). And Mark Thompson’s costumes design takes us from the sad patchwork fabric of Charlie’s day-to-day life, to the ostentation of Wonker’s wonderland.

Nowlan gives a perfectly-pitched performance as the good-hearted Charlie, humbly sniffing used chocolate wrappers in the newly opened Wonka shop a the end of his street. He captures the heart and soul of the character, including the inherent goodness that sees him rewarded from among the group of otherwise ungrateful golden ticket recipients.

Anderson nimbles about the stage as Willy Wonker, capturing his eccentricities in his energy and speech of malprpisms and word mis-ordering, but also his darker character shades as he reacts blasély, bordering on gleefully as during the factory tour, the four other children cannot resist their impulses towards misbehaviour and are consequently removed in darkly comical ways. And the supporting cast are similarly all excellent in their respective roles.

All aspects of the show combine in a lovely balance of humour with the show’s essential heart. Charlie’s bedridden grandparents provide a Greek chorus of commentary, often punctuated by deadpan one-liner delivery from a cynical Grandpa George, which operates in juxtaposition to eternal optimist Joe’s hyperbolic stories, often featuring an Australian flair. Indeed, the exaggeration of the comic characters is integral to the show’s appeal to audience members of all ages, down even to the Euan Diodge’s matter-of-fact spruiking of second-hand vegetables as local beggar-woman Mrs Green.

The soundtrack features a range of numbers. And while songs like Act Two’s techno-esque ‘Vidiots’ is certainly catchy, it is the more restrained numbers that best showcase the talent of the orchestra (Musical Director David Piper). This includes the sweet ballad ‘If Your Father Were Here’, in which Mrs Bucket describes how their lives would be better if Charlie’s father were still alive, in help to stretch Act One out towards arrival of the golden ticket winners at the factory. Expectedly, perhaps, it is the melody of the iconic ‘Pure Imagination’, sung by Wonker as the group are taken behind the factory’s gates of astonishment, the leaves the most lasting musical impression, along with his tender final ‘The View from Here’ in which he tells Charlie of his grand prize as the two soar high into the air in a great glass elevator.

With cyber-crimes and social media stars, the musical of “Charlie and Chocolate Factory” is a story of the 21st century, however, it is also one that keeps true to its origins as an ode to daydreaming. While the show incorporates Dahl’s dark humour in its illustration of what happens to children who misbehave despite warnings, there is an essential innocence to its imagination that makes it a purely joyful treat.

Pure Phoenix imagination

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

February 5 – 27

From the initial moments of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, the differences between the musical and its 1964 Roald Dahl children’s novel source material are clear. The show opens with eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonker (Joshua Moore) explaining to the audience in ‘The Candy Man’ that he’s searching for a suitable successor to run his legendary chocolate factory. Despite having no money to spend on sweets, candy-obsessed Charlie frequents a local shop and befriends the owner, unaware that he is Willy Wonka, but inspiring him in a mad idea for a competition that will see five golden tickets hidden across the world in chocolate bars.

As we meet daydreamer Charlie (Lawson Berry) telling the shopkeeper about Wonka’s career (‘Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka!’) we see some changes in his presentation too; rather than the humble, kind and optimistic Charlie of the enduring story, this is Charlie with a bothersome attitude. However, as he returns to the decrepit shack in which he lives with his mother (Zoe Costello) and four bed-ridden grandparents: Grandpa George (William Chen), Grandma Georgina (Laura Baker), Grandma Josephine (Sally Faint) and a sprightly Grandpa Joe (Shannon Foley), the story settles into familiar territory of their life of cabbage soup, tall tales and Charlie’s dreams of inventing the world’s next big thing in confectionary.

The delicious tale proceeds with the revelation of the five all-access golden ticket winners, faring from Russia and Germany to California and Midwest USA, who, along with a parent, have opportunity to tour Wonka’s factory. We don’t get to the factory until after interval though, with Act One allowing for the media-frenzied introduction of the mostly-doomed culturally-stereotyped children of Wonka’s tour, with each getting their own song.

There’s the gluttonous wurst-twirling Bavarian, Augustus Gloop (Harley Roy) and his mother (Fiona Buchanan), ready to eat their own body weight in chocolate at the factory; pampered spoiled-brat Russian ballerina Veruca Salt (Victoria Sica) and her oligarch father (Tristan Ham); the narcissistic social media celebrity and self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Pop’ (owing to her non-stop gum-chewing habit) Violet Beauregard (Ellen Axford) and her determined-to-have-her-go-viral father manager (Steven Days); the tech-addict gamer Mike Teavee (Chris Drummond) who controversially has hacked his way to fraudulently receive a ticket, and his mother (Carly Quinn); as well as Charlie and his Grandpa Joe.

It’s all very pantomime (without the audience participation) and over-the-top in its quest for laughs, especially in scenes featuring Charlie’s bedridden grandparents, that also feature some unexpected adult humour such as in Grandma Georgina’s risqué reading material and later political nods to Trump’s middle America in the media’s reporting of Mike Teavee’s ticket discovery. And performers rise to the challenge. Even from within the chorus, Aina Betts and William Chen prove themselves to be consistent standouts, always dynamic and highly entertaining.

Axford gives self-styled Violet some spunky JoJo Siwa type energy, however, it is Roy that is the biggest standout (#punintended) as the greedy Augustus, always animated to perfection, even if only in the background of scenes with mouth agape, such as in reaction to the first appearance of Wonka towards the end of Act One, or when posing tummy-forward for the media’s cameras. Indeed, it is wonderful to see Roy and Buchanan play off each other throughout, such as when Mrs Gloop tries to cajole Augustus from his sads with some spirited cheek squeezes. It’s just a shame that he topples into Wonka’s chocolate river so soon in the story.

As always with a Phoenix production, challenges to staging are accounted for inventively, particularly as the children embark on their mesmerising joyride through the incredible inventions within the chocolate factory. Justin Tubb-Hearne bright costume and sets design combine to create an onstage wonderland, making the most of the venue’s modest setting to balloon Violet, shrink Mike, create a great glass elevator and enliven a dancing chorus of almost a dozen oompa loompas through body puppetry. There is a clear attention detail in support too, with candy imagery adorning the theatre space, in support of the swirling lollypops on sale, and thematic pre-show and internal songs of the ‘I Want Candy’ and ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ sort.

The band of Musical Director Benjamin Tubb-Hearne (keys), Laura Nicole Guiton (horn), Dale Hosking (trumpet) and Jennifer Wilson (drums) are in fine form, allowing for showcase of vocal talents. There’s some decent songs, too, from Mrs Bucket’s sweet ballad reflection of how life could have been different ‘If your father were here’ and Wonka’s tender final ‘The View from Here’ in which he tells Charlie of his grand prize as the two soar above town in the Great Glass Elevator.  Beyond this, while songs fulfil their purposes, they don’t really stand out beyond the iconic music from the 1971 film especially the beloved, melodic ‘Pure Imagination’, although Act Two’s techno-esque ‘Vidiots’ about how no one every goes back to normal after being on television, does entice with a futuristic “Be More Chill” appeal.

The biggest strength of this show, is, without a doubt Joshua Moore as the delightfully-silly sweet-talking candy man himself. He is a strong leading man whose energy never wanes in magnetic exemplification of the eccentric confectionary entrepreneur. Whimsical in his physicality, yet cutting in many of his comments, he effortlessly incorporates nonsense terms, malpropisms and mis-odering of words into his dialogue, keeping with the distinctive language characteristics of Dahl’s writing.

While the show also incorporates Dahl’s dark humour in its illustration of what happens to children who misbehave despite warnings, there is an essential innocence to it, making its experience great fun for the young (with stamina for its lengthy running time) and the young at heart willing to enter a world of pure imagination and put aside its plot holes. It is, therefore, easy to appreciate how this world amateur premiere season is already sold out.

Photos c/o – CF Photography Families