With a winning young actor in the lead role, any ticket to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is good as gold. Eleven-year-old Rueby Wood made the perfect Charlie Bucket the night we attended at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre.
If the entire national tour goes this well, America is in for a massive sugar rush. Maybe producers should sell chocolate MASA hats in the lobby — time to Make America Sweet Again.
The new musical gets the focus right. Both movies made from Roald Dahl’s original 1964 story were hijacked by their respective Willy Wonkas. Gene Wilder and Johnnie Depp mesmerized in their different ways as the mysterious private showman-entrepreneur who rules a candy lover’s dream factory with a crack staff of Oompa Loompas.
By the time the current stage version reached Broadway in 2017, the adaptation by playwright David Greig made certain we were with young Charlie on every step of his journey. Rueby Wood (who alternates in the role with Henry Boshart and Collin Jeffrey) carries us along all evening on his delicate frame, bobbing and weaving past every left-hook and sucker punch Dahl can throw at him.
Of course Charlie’s courage and selflessness give him a Darwinian edge over the grotesque self-centeredness of the other four youngsters (all comically portrayed by adult actors) who score tickets for the factory tour.
Highlights of Act One mostly revolve around those four other “winners” and their oddly accessorized parent. All the cleverest new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are given to introducing this rogue’s gallery, each of them destined for harsh treatment in Act Two.
“More of Him to Love” is served up as an infectious Bavarian polka by the obese Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood) and his mother (Kathy Fitzgerald), both adorned in amusing fat suits.
A spoiled-rotten Russian ballerina named Veruca (impressive Jessica Cohen) and her stage-dad father (Nathaniel Hackman) leave no doubt who’s calling the shots in “When Veruca Says.”
Violet Beauregard (Brynne Williams), a gum-smacking child star and her father (David Samuel) dominate indelibly with their flashy take on “Queen of Pop.”
And Mike Teavee (Daniel Quardrino) along with ineffectual mother (Madeleine Doherty) ground us in our modern era with “That Little Man of Mine,” an ode to missing Bluetooth tech-addict teens.
Their whimsical demises should not be taken too seriously, as they serve as object lessons of the old “careful what you wish for” fairy tale variety. However, be warned that very young viewers might find their fates more disturbingly grim than Grimm.
Serving as the show’s ideal twinkle-toed mix of genial goof and detached inquistioner is multi-talented Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka. He gets things off to a dreamy start with the essential “Candy Man,” and later gives us an enchanting “Pure Imagination,” the other Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse gem from the first movie.
James Young proves another reliable source of comedy throughout as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe. More critically, he brings the show a needed infusion of heart and sentiment in the number “Charlie, You & I.”
Amanda Rose as Mrs. Bucket also keeps the fantasy grounded with a gentle touch in “If Your Father Was Here.”
Finally, the show-stopping appearance of those adorably pint-sized Oompa Loompas deserves another dozen hands or so. Credit the puppet mastery of Basil Twist and his minions.
The ensemble is as strong as its talented components, thanks to the seasoned guidance of Broadway director Jack O’Brien (who took over the staging from Sam Mendes). The stylish proscenium framings of Mark Thompson and the Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman also contribute to the pleasing impression of top professionals at work.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory plays through January 27, 2019, at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.