It features an adorable performance by talented child actor Rueby Wood in the title role. It has a visually and aurally striking scene about "Pure Imagination." And the Oompa Loompas, the little people who make up the near-magical workforce of a certain chocolate plant, are fetching and funny, even if they toil in what looks like a treat-making sweatshop.
But otherwise, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which opened Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, is largely a dud. Especially in the first act.
This Broadway musical should have been a sweet treat, given the talent of its creative team, including composer Marc Shaiman ("Hairspray") and director Jack O'Brien, a three-time Tony-winner ("Hairspray," "Henry IV" and "The Coast of Utopia").
It does muster some antic humor as we meet Charlie, whose mother works the overnight shift and whose four cartoonish grandparents share a single bed. While materially poor, Charlie has a rich imagination, especially for inventing new chocolate candies. He eventually gets his chance to act on his dreams after a series of darkly fortuitous events — including the explosion of one character and the shrinkage of another — leave him in the good graces of factory owner Willy Wonka (Benjamin Howes).
The problem with this show is not with the actors, though — it's with the conception. While "Charlie" is a well-known property, both from Roald Dahl's 1964 children's novel and from two film adaptations — director Mel Stuart's 1971 TV film starring Gene Wilder and director Tim Burton's 2005 feature headlined by Johnny Depp — it has some tricky back stories. Dahl originally imagined Charlie as a poor black kid and the Oompa Loompas as Pygmies. So he wrote things that are out of step with today's mores.
Perhaps that's why the most interesting action takes place in the factory, which comes only in the second act. There's an attempt to make Willy Wonka an everyday nice guy, not mythologically Oz-like and scary. As for the set, it's cold and removed with its digital imagery.
One can appreciate the creative team's challenge, to give audiences what they love about the story while updating its humor for a different art form. For the 2013 premiere in London, they crafted new songs and left out some popular musical numbers from the films. But movie numbers such as "The Candy Man" and "The Oompa Loompa Song" were reinserted when the musical hit Broadway in 2017, with "Candy Man" coming at the very top of the show.
In other words, the creative team wrestled between fan expectations and itself. The result is a draw, judging from what's on view at the Orpheum. "Charlie" hardly moves in the first act, with more inertia than energy. The action doesn't build and release the way a strong show should. And there's no lame pun that book-writer David Greig leaves out.
The second act is much more engaging, including that magical "Imagination" number.
Young performer Wood, who has stage presence and charisma to spare, does a beautiful job as Charlie. He sings well and, importantly, invites us into his emotions and dreams. He carries us along with his growing and impressive talent.
Howes' Willy Wonka is entertaining enough, evoking Wilder's wit and smarminess but not his Joker-like dark side.
The cast, in fact, is tireless as members sing along to conductor Charlie Alterman's colorful orchestra. The ensemble performs in gaudy costumes by Mark Thompson, who also created the scenery.
All that brightness stimulates the senses but also is suggestive of Pepto-Bismol — it offers relief from an overload of a sugary indulgence as "Charlie" tries very hard to please.