Got a sweet tooth? You’re in luck: There’s a new Willy Wonka in town and your kids are going to eat him right up.
Based on the novel by Roald Dahl and featuring songs from the hit 1971 motion picture, the Broadway tour (with book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman) is a modernized take on the classic tale of five kids given the keys to the (candy) kingdom and a once-in-a-lifetime spin with the reclusive Candy Man himself.
So what’s different in this version? Well, for starters, the score is comprised of contrasting musical styles, from hip-hop to polka and classical ballet, and they all play really, really well together. There’s also some fun work with projections and visual effect tricks, the kind that the original TV-happy Mike TeaVee would lose his mind over if he knew just what was possible, screen-wise, in 2018.
And it’s not just eye candy. There’s some serious heart here. The show is funny as heck, sure, but it also brings the tear-jerkers, like when the overworked Mrs. Bucket (Amanda Rose) sings the sweet “If Your Father Were Here” to the sleeping Charlie on his birthday, adding some depth to the family’s story, and slightly answering the question of why, exactly, it’s only one parent at home—and all those grandparents in that bed.
It doesn’t matter how often the story is read or watched; a rather large part of the audience still gasped when—spoiler—Charlie grasped that gleaming fifth ticket. You simply want it for this kid. The poverty of Charlie Bucket, as the only ticket winner belonging to the Have Nots group, is starkly contrasted with the opulence of the Haves; the generally wealthy parents lavishing their spoiled children with anything their ever-changing hearts desire. And speaking of parents, this updated story showcases the myriad ways today’s mothers and fathers are ruining their children left and right. Humorous excess? Cautionary tale? Either way, it’s effective and vaguely terrifying.
The ticket-holding kids in this production are a far cry from anyone whom Gene Wilder’s Wonka would recognize. We won’t spoil the fun— and half of the fun is in the introduction of each new kid— but this globally located, universally spoiled bunch are so bad you can’t help but love them (and their eventual comeuppances). The ensemble is a great bunch, each enjoying comedic star turns throughout, but it’s the multiple appearances of the Oompa Loompas and their blend of physical humor and stage magic that are worth the price of admission. Grandpa Joe (portrayed by James Young) is just the sidekick you’d want on an adventure like this, and his tall—and taller—tales are some of the show’s funniest bits of dialogue. Henry Boshart, splitting the role of Charlie Bucket with two other children, is a rootable hero, worthy of that lifetime supply of candy. And as for Wonka? He’s played with a pitch-perfect dryness by Noah Weisberg, and his energy, terrific modes of moving across a stage and suspected disdain for actual children is everything you’d ever want to see from the candy man of legend.
While it’s a marvelous family-friendly romp, some of the humor gets a little dark (a couple of the kids meet particularly gruesome ends) and the runtime clocks in at two and a half hours with an intermission, so keep that in mind for the younger set. And while the production isn’t without its flaws—some of the reveals are owed much more buildup than they’re given, and the pace at which we get to the actual candy factory in the second act can feel frustratingly slow at times—this sweet staging is worth the ticket, golden or otherwise.
If you go
Through Oct. 21
Tickets start at $27
Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph St, Chicago