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.