LONDON – Cheap candy or finest nougat truffle?
Reviewers gave their verdicts Wednesday on a new stage musical version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” after its rapturous reception from a star-studded opening-night audience in London.
The Sam Mendes-directed musical, based on Roald Dahl’s much-loved and twice film-adapted children’s book, was cheered Tuesday by a packed house of theatergoers that included actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Uma Thurman and members of the Dahl family.
The show features new songs by “Hairspray” duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, along with extravagant sets and costumes designed to bring to life the magical confectionary factory run by the flamboyant yet secretive Willy Wonka.
Reviews were generally positive, with critics in the Guardian, Independent and Daily Mirror newspapers and Time Out magazine all awarding “Charlie” four out of five stars.
Many reviewers had praise for the deft direction of Oscar-winner Mendes – in his follow-up to James Bond thriller “Skyfall” – and for Mark Thompson’s spectacular design.
Thompson draws on a bag of tricks that ranges from animation to puppetry to shadow projections, and fans of the book will find its most amazing flights of fantasy re-created onstage, from the factory’s chocolate waterfall to Wonka’s great glass elevator and his workforce of diminutive Oompa Loompas.
“The sets are massive, the special effects amazing,” said Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer. “If you want to see a fat boy sucked up a transparent tube or a girl metamorphosing before your very eyes into a giant blueberry, this is undoubtedly the show for you.”
Playwright David Greig has adapted Dahl’s story of poor but imaginative Charlie Bucket, who finds a golden ticket that allows him a tour of Wonka’s top-secret facility – alongside the far less wholesome children Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee and Veruca Salt.
They come to gloriously sticky ends in Dahl’s satire-tinged tale, updated by Greig and the songwriters for the era of the Internet and reality TV.
Douglas Hodge, one of Britain’s leading musical-theater performers, won praise as a charming and unsettling Willy Wonka, a role played onscreen by Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. The Times’ Libby Purves called him “a clear, beautiful singer and an actor with immense heart … [who] finds something mournful and damaged in Wonka.”
Nigel Planer, a former star of 1980s comedy “The Young Ones,” is the cast’s other big name as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe.
Producers are hoping “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” – which is booking until May 2014 at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane – will be a stage hit to match Mendes’ screen James Bond blockbuster.
It’s the second Dahl musical running in the West End, alongside “Matilda,” which has taken Broadway by storm and won four Tony Awards earlier this month. Some felt “Charlie,” in comparison, fell short of true magic.
Spencer was not alone in finding the songs “serviceable rather than memorable” – “Pure Imagination,” the standout song, comes from the 1971 movie – and The Independent’s Paul Taylor felt it “doesn’t quite produce the inspired sugar-rush of magic that’s required.”