Nostalgic updating of ‘Charlie…’ and Willy Wonka

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

I remember back in fifth grade in the early 1970s, Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was “the” book to read.

At the McDivitt Elementary School library in then-Madison Township, N.J., there was an extensive waiting list for the book. Rather than the typical two-week borrow, there was a limit of one week for the tale about chocolatier Willy Wonka. Failure to return the book in time would result in a stern look and a brief scold from the McDivitt librarian – and scorn from the students lower on the waiting list.

When I pined away from my chance to read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” I assumed it was a fresh volume on the school shelves. And until now, I didn’t know Dahl first published the children’s book – with its sly adult undertones ‑ in 1964.

This gives an indication of the timelessness of the tale about the mysterious but charming Wonka, the earnest Charlie Bucket, and a group of mischievous children. And it’s a tale where subsequent generations have latched onto the tale, either through the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” with Gene Wilder or through the 2005 film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” directed by Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands”).

So the 2013 Broadway musical, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which has settled in at Hartford’s The Bushnell till Sunday, from the get-go has had a built-in audience. And the crowd on opening night, Feb. 19, gave a clear indication of the cross-generational appeal of the show. There were small children, tweens, teens, millennials, Baby Boomers, and so on filling the seats at the venue.

First off, let me say the stage musical doesn’t betray the love of the audience for the book or films. It maintains the wide-eyed innocence of Charlie. And it provides a light brush of the cynicism touched upon by Dahl.

Yes,the characters are updated to reflect the times. Violet Beauregard (Brynn Williams) is now a social media star. Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen) is the Paris Hilton-esque daughter of a newly-minted millionaire from Russia. Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino) is an ADHD video game addict with computer hacking skills. Only Augustus Gloop (played in a fat suit by Matt Wood), the ravenous Bavarian, is caught in a time warp – untouched by the modern abhorrence for cholesterol and nitrates.

Well, Gloop is not the only blast from the past. Charlie Bucket (played by Henry Boshart on this night) is still the earnest wide-eyed innocent in a dark modern world envisioned by Dahl.

There is a bit of a sardonic, dark tone in the stage show. But it’s in keeping with the milieu of Dahl, who was primarily an adult novelist who dabbled in children’s stories. And the stage show is in keeping with the darker undertones of the films with Wilder and Johnny Depp.

The show is clearly aware of its forebears. Willy Wonka (played this night by understudy Benjamin Howes) borrows his attire from the Wilder film. The vibrant cartoon like color palette in the set design and costumes created by Mark Thompson are clearly Burton-esque.

The stage show also borrows some songs from the Wilder film. Both  “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination,” written Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, have key roles in the tale.

(The bulk of the show is accompanied by the fine songs crafted by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.)

As for performances, there wasn’t a dud on stage. Howe expertly slid into the role as Wonka as understudy. (Lead Noah Weisberg injured himself and was down for the count for the Hartford run.) Boshart, who tag teams as Charlie on the tour, was delightful as Charlie, full of dreams and high hopes.

All of Boshart’s Golden Ticket cohorts were hilariously cartoon-esque ‑ with my favorites being the overbearing Veruca (Cohen) and sardonic Teavee (Quadrino).

All in all, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was good fun. It evoked a fond sense nostalgia while effectively illustrating the timelessness of Dahl’s message about the power of imagination and dreaming.

I give it 3 out of 4 stars.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford through Sunday. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

For more information, go to Bushnell.org

‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ continues at The Bushnell in Hartford through Sunday.