Review / Whizzbang theatrical effects save ‘Charlie’

Paul Slade Smith as Willy Wonka, centre, and cast. Photo: Jeff Busby

A SECOND-act showcase of whizzbang theatrical effects and superb choreography by Broadway choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s sharp choreography saved this musical version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” from being an altogether disappointing experience.

One of the most overacted shows seen on the Sydney stage in a while, the stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book was certainly enhanced by a quiet, modest performance from Ryan Yeates as Charlie, (he will alternate with Oliver Alkhair, Tommy Blair and Xion Jarvis) and a capable interpretation of Willy Wonka from imported Broadway song and dance man, Paul Slade Smith.

Disadvantaged by its schematic structure, (five young people will be selected for the “Golden Ticket” tour of Willy Wonka‘s mysterious chocolate factory) the first half saw a one-by-one line-up of nauseating children representing most of the deadly sins and —standing out from them — the gentle Charlie. In Act II, each gets his or her deserts and Charlie triumphs as a model of imagination and good-heartedness.

Ham-acting characterised all of the support performances (except that of Lucy Maunder as Charlie’s mum) and that was made all the more obvious because of Yeates’ quiet demeanour.

Lucy Maunder, Tony Sheldon, Tommy Blair as Charlie. Photo: Jeff Busby

Even the experienced Tony Sheldon went right over the top as Grandpa Joe, and the decision for him to use a broad Australian accent was plain confusing since Slade presented with a standard Broadway showbiz accent.

Efforts to “Australianise” the content with references to Ned Kelly and Eureka Stockade added to the confusion.

The only notable songs were “The Candy Man”, made famous by Sammy Davis Junior and the beautiful song, “Pure Imagination”, both composed by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the 1971 “Charlie” film. Apart from those, it might as well have been a “straight” play.

Without doubt the show picked up in Act II with the arrival of Dahl’s strange tribe of Oompa-Loompas, which were cleverly performed by virtuoso dancers making their hands work harder than their feet. The scene where the vain Veruca Salt is torn apart by a terrifying troupe of dancing black squirrels is equally impressive. This veered towards the darker side of Dahl; in this version, there was no suggestion that any of those exploded or mashed-up children would make it back to the real world alive.

The technical effects ramp up in Act II, allowing some of the horrible children to disappear before the audience’s eyes and others to be transformed, as when the obstinate Violet Beauregard is literally blown up, in the balloon sense. The special effects climaxing in an extraordinary sleight-of-hand where Willy Wonka transports Charlie high into the sky.

What the many young people in the audience made of this it is hard to estimate, although the “oohs” and “aahs” abounded in the spectacular finale.

But it took a long time to get there.

 

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