Charlie and the Chocolate Factory enjoyed successful seasons in both Sydney and Melbourne in 2019, before it was due to open in Brisbane in May last year. Postponed when COVID-19 hit, it has finally opened. The production (presented here by QPAC in association with John Frost) is based on the original Broadway version, closely mirroring the beloved 1971 Gene Wilder film. It is exactly the type of heart-warming and uplifting story with a ‘happily-ever-after ending’ that we probably all need to cheer us up in these miserable times and could not have landed here at a more opportune moment. Certainly, the response on opening night at the Lyric Theatre in QPAC was one of palpable excitement, with the audience on board from the first orchestral note through to the standing ovation at the end.
Roald Dahl’s story of young Charlie Bucket, a connoisseur of chocolate and a devotee of the Willy Wonka brand and all that entails, is well-known and loved by children everywhere. But what this musical showed is that it is much more than merely a light, frothy piece for kids. As might be expected, there are also some darker moments giving it a definite moral compass.
This production differs from the original book and the films, starting with the reclusive Willy Wonka (Stephen Anderson) whose factory has closed through a dwindling lack of interest in his chocolate. He decides to disguise himself as a Candyman with the aim of finding a way to come back as a chocolatier. The Candy Man song is a great addition to start the show and set the scene, with some fine ensemble singing and dancing to get us off to a cracking pace. Wonka meets Charlie (Flynn Nowlan on opening night) in his shop, who gives him the idea of hiding special tickets in his chocolate bars, offering 5 winners the chance for a guided tour of the factory. Taking off like wildfire, the world scrambles to buy Wonka chocolate again. While this premise is rather shaky, it has some merit in the narrative that follows. The subsequent first half is devoted to telling us about the four families and their spoilt, unpleasant children who win the golden tickets. They are interviewed by two over-the-top TV personalities, Cherry Sundae and Jerry Jubilee, deliciously played by Madison Green and Todd Goddard in a series of hysterical vignettes. We are also introduced to Charlie Bucket and his very poor but caring family; mother (Lucy Maunder) and four grandparents, including Grandpa Joe (Robert Grubb). Against all odds, Charlie miraculously wins a golden ticket and sets off for the tour with much excitement accompanied by Grandpa Joe. This sets up well the narrative for the second half.
What follows is their colourful misadventures at the factory, the format making Act 2 much more stimulating and action packed than the first half. This is in part due to some sumptuous scenic elements, created by Mark Thompson, including an opening bright green garden scene complete with edible plants and flowers, the magic copper chocolate-making machine and the famous glass elevator. Used extensively there are many exceptional technical lighting effects and video projections from Japhy Weideman and Jeff Sugg, including a wonderful video television scene and an imaginative use of sound effects by Andrew Keister to denote the scenic elements in Willy Wonka’s mind. Additionally, the choreography by Joshua Bergasse is first-rate, with some terrific dance numbers by the multi-talented ensemble. Nothing can quite prepare you for Bergasse’s remarkable work with the wonderful Oompa Loompas, technically superb and executed with aplomb.
The four obnoxious children all meet sticky ends in Act 2, some quite literally. There is very much an element of the cautionary tales here, expressing the dark side of Dahl’s humour, as the children get their just desserts. Augustus Gloop (Jaxton Graham Wilson), a huge Bavarian, sausage-eating boy meets his end in a river of chocolate; Veruca Salt (Karina Russell), the rich, spoilt Russian ballerina is literally pulled apart by the giant dancing squirrels in a much uglier ending than Dahl wrote; Violet Beauregard (Tarisai Vushe) eats a magic piece of gum, grows into a blueberry and then explodes, also not in the Dahl original, while Mike Teavee (Taylor Scanlan), a particularly nasty TV-addicted brat, gets swallowed up by the TV and comes out as a small talking doll, much to his mother’s delight! Scanlan’s dance skills came very much to the fore here. They are all gloriously horrible in their roles, as are their devoted parents, played convincingly by Octavia Barron Martin, Simon Russell, Madison McKoy and Johanna Allen.
Stephen Anderson makes a splendid and highly credible Willy Wonka, with his humorous mixture of outrageousness, danger and pure fun, matched by impeccable timing and truly excellent singing. He is a great asset to the show and was particularly fine in delivering the crazy Strike That, Reverse It! and It Must Be Believed to be Seen, while his Pure Imagination was magical.
Flynn Nowlan, who shares the role of Charlie with Phineas Knickerbocker, Cooper Matthews and Edgar Stirling, performed on opening night. Barely leaving the stage during the show, he was exceptionally good. He conveyed the charm and sweetness of his character, wanting always to see the best in people and having implicit faith in Wonka. As an actor he displayed a childlike natural curiosity and the most vivid of imaginations, while his delivery of both his spoken and sung lines was exemplary.
As Grandpa Joe, Robert Grubb was wonderfully eccentric and very funny, giving a strong and totally believable performance. He made the most of every line, wickedly introducing references to Australian characters. His marvellous relationship with his grandson worked a treat.
Lucy Maunder gave a beautiful and moving performance as the overworked Mrs Bucket; her song, If Your Father Were Here to which she also dances, alongside the figure of her late husband, was poignant.
Under David Piper’s musical direction, the band played exceptionally well, with the bright and powerful score in very safe hands.
This was a highly-charged, energetic musical, immensely engaging as a production with a great cast and displaying high-quality production values and special effects. It should not be missed by adults or children alike.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory plays in the Lyric Theatre, QPAC until 3 October.