No matter how many times you and your children — or the child inside you — has seen either the 1971 or the 2005 movie adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, book an early holiday treat for the touring production now through Nov. 18 at the Academy of Music. David Greig's book, Marc Shaiman's music, and Shaiman and Scott Wittman's lyrics combine with Roald Dahl's story to deliver a laugh-packed, visually fantastical celebration of relentless optimism and the power of imagination.
The musical draws its plot from Dahl's 1964 novel and uses songs written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 movie. Eleven-year old Charlie Bucket (Henry Boshart on opening night) grows up in poverty but rich in spirit, living in a house with his widowed mother and four grandparents. Grandpa Joe (James Young) tells tall tales of imagined exploits, some about Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg), the mysterious owner of the town's now-shuttered chocolate factory.
When Wonka runs a contest to tour his facility — hiding five golden tickets inside chocolate bars — Charlie hopes and saves, and along with four other kids earns his spot. Comedies from Family Guy to The Office have spoofed this plot, but here, the story line warms with the radiant performances of Young and Boshart, whose young voice sparkles.
A strong ensemble fleshes out Dahl's clever characters, with enjoyable but bratty performances by Jessica Cohen (as the spoiled Veruca Salt) and Brynn Williams (as Violet Beauregarde). Updates to Dahl's story include hip-hop dancing (choreographed by Joshua Bergasse) and references to iPads and YouTube, plus a Donald Trump nod in the person of Russian oligarch Mr. Salt (Nathaniel Hackmann).
Visually, the show develops slowly, with Mark Thompson's compact set pieces depicting Charlie's dreary home life. The spectacle builds in Act 2, where Japhy Weideman's lighting and Jeff Sugg's CGI projections blend into brilliant backdrops of Wonka's factory, culminating in a spectacular blitz of imagery in the TV room.
Weisberg's portrayal of Wonka similarly builds over time, a carefully crafted performance that starts like a too-awkward Mark Zuckerberg, then weaves in elements of dark humor and malice. These elements thread the production. Our dazzling first glimpse of the factory morphs through an enchanting yet frightening giant squirrel ballet (where a little girl is quartered) until the last child has exited the factory in a blend of terror and thrill. Throughout the second act, Thompson's Tim-Burtonesque costumes and the creepy puppetry of the Oompa Loompas (by puppeteer Basil Twist) cement this mixture of merriment and dread.
But the ending fills the heart as only live theater can: A downtrodden character, in the flesh, takes a perilous, morally ambiguous journey to reach a culmination that only starts a new beginning. This winning production lifts the spirit with a songful celebration of courage and the power of imagination that makes all art possible.