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REVIEW: Holy Caramels in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Orpheum/HTT)

Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka with the cast of the national touring company of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s a little ironic that a musical about candy opened in Minneapolis on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting in many Christian traditions. By all rights, it should have opened on Fat Tuesday last week, when foods traditionally flow with abundance. Tardy or not, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sweet addition to Hennepin Avenue this week.

It’s been some 55 years since Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was unleashed on the world. The delicious exploration of imagination, the dangers of childhood excess, and the joys of chocolate has been in print ever since, and inspired multiple adaptations to stage and screen. This stage musical is derived in part from the celebrated 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, and has no resemblance to the eminently forgettable 2005 Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp. If you’ve seen the former film, you’ll recognize a couple songs that made the transition.

The ever-rickety Bucket household. Foreground: Amanda Rose as Mrs. Bucket, James Young as Grandpa Joe, and Rueby Wood as Charlie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The musical currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre has several immediate virtues: it has a charming and captivating world of magical realism, a suffusion of visual and lyrical humor, and a tone that strikes an elegant balance of tender, demented, and simply funny. The script and score are also brought to life by a strong cast that has you eagerly anticipating each appearance of the Oompa Loompas (brought to life by an ingenious combination of puppetry and human actors).

As is generally the case with shows with child actor leads, there are multiple actors paying the titular Charlie Bucket. At opening night this was Rueby Wood, a talented boy with great energy and charisma, and more to the point excellent chemistry with Benjamin Howes’ Willy Wonka. Howes especially shines in the big production numbers, including the visually and lyrically poetic “Pure Imagination”.

Rueby Wood, one of three actors playing Charlie Bucket on different nights, opened Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you’ve read the book, you might notice that the character counts have been axed and the narrative streamlined a little bit. None of this is conspicuously absent; however, the flow of Act I would be still improved by trimming a scene or song from the opening. While there is some emotional payoff later for that material, the sextet “A Letter from Charlie Bucket” is where things kick off emotionally. From there there’s a cavalcade of introduction songs and some character moments before the Act I finale “It Must Be Believed to Be Seen” pushes all those thoughts from your mind. That song is, simply put, awesome in its execution; like Aladdin‘s Act I finale “Friend Like Me”, it’s the high energy peak of the show. Howes sparkles as he casts his spell at the Wonka factory gates, and ensemble is the sorcerer’s eager army of apprentices in making the magic; special nods to Jess Fry and Kristin Piro for their performances in this scene.

Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka and the Company of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Coming back from intermission, Act II lands with a different set of flavors. This is where a lot of the funniest lines from David Greig’s book and the lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman come out, including a lot of delicious wordplay using assonance and sibilance. There are also lots of throwaway jokes and references for the older audience members, smoothly integrated and passing harmlessly over the youngsters’ heads if missed. Even more importantly, this is where the Oompa Loompas enter the picture, with a fantastic bit of visual humor from the puppetry and some great dance routines that break out of the normal physical constraints.

Speaking of dance, Joshua Bergasse’s choreography has a few more surprises in it, fully exploiting opportunities in Marc Shaiman’s score. There’s a dream ballet tucked into Act I’s “If Your Father Were Here” (movingly rendered by Amanda Rose as Mrs. Bucket), and the classical parody quotations and nods in “Veruca’s Nutcracker Sweet” (starring Jessica Cohen as Veruca Salt) are essential in making that piece a combination of hilarious and a little disturbing. How many shows do you see with giant squirrel ballets, anyway?

Arguably the greatest sin of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp musical film was that its songs were instantly forgotten, and just not super fun in the moment. The stage musical now playing at the Orpheum does not have this problem – there are definitely some songs that you can leave the theatre humming, and discussing favorite moments is sure to be an entertaining diversion with friends. And, yes, your favorite Bricusse/Newly songs “Pure Imagination” and “The Oompa Loompa Songs” from the 1971 Gene Wilder film are definitely there. No cavities required.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs through March 17 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine