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Charlie Upstaged by Oompa-Loompas at Choc Factory: Review

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'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Douglas Hodge, center, and members of the company in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The new musical, composed by Marc Shaiman, is based on the 1964 novel by Roald Dahl. Photographer: Helen Maybanks/Cornershop PR via Bloomberg

June 27 (Bloomberg) -- “They’re singing again. That’s never a good sign,” says Mrs. Teavee in the new London musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

She’s referring to the Oompa-Loompas. These are a troupe of tiny creatures who, through a series of amusing routines, dispense violent punishments to various obstreperous brats.

The glum thing is that her anxious words could also refer to the patchwork quality of the music.

Composer Marc Shaiman (“Hairspray”) pastiches a sackful of musical styles without finding a way to tie the sack together.

There’s a 1920s jazz number for the hero’s grandparents. There’s a Bavarian yodeling song for the German dumpling Augustus Gloop, and a rap number for the Californian gum-chewing princess Violet Beauregarde. There’s a Cockney march for Grandpa Joe which goes “Don’t, don’t, don’t ya pinch me, Chaaaa-rlie.”

One song, “Pure Imagination”, is imported from the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” too.

It’s an exercise in box ticking, lacking the wit and urgency of that other Roald Dahl-based blockbuster “Matilda,” currently pleasing audiences in London and New York.

The story, adapted by playwright David Greig, follows Dahl’s original pretty closely. After 40 years of isolation, the mysterious Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) decides to open his magical chocolate factory to the finders of five golden tickets.

Four winning children are greedy, violent and egomaniacal monsters, and each comes to a suitably sticky end. Only Charlie wins through. (I saw an excellent Jack Costello, one of four boys playing the title role).

Villain Needed

Act 1 mainly centers on the hero’s poverty-stricken family, and feels slow. The 1971 film created a subplot about an evil spy called Slugworth to pep things up, and here you feel the lack of a good villain.

The staging by Sam Mendes compensates with plenty of color once we move into the factory in Act 2. The tiny Oompa-Loompas are a constant source of delight, and designer/ costumier Mark Thompson finds ever more inventive ways to portray their diminutive stature.

They totter on platform shoes, ride enormous squirrels, and pop out of tiny packing crates. There’s even a hilarious tap routine -- with hidden extra performers operating the little Oompa Loompian feet -- performed along an industrial chocolate pipeline.

Cute Squirrel

The highlight of Act 2 is the number for grabby little rich-girl Veruca Salt (I saw a superb Tia Noakes), who likes to dress in a ballet tutu and mink coat. When she sees Wonka’s squirrels sorting good nuts from bad ones, she demands a cute squirrel for herself.

The scene develops into a terrific ballet parody, “Veruca’s Nutcracker Sweet,” which ends with the ghastly tot heading down the nut-chute into an incinerator.

Douglas Hodge, in a plum velvet jacket and green check pants, makes an appealing Wonka even if he doesn’t have the edge that Gene Wilder brought to the role in the 1971 film. Nigel Planer is enjoyably lively in the other main adult role, Grandpa Joe.

It’s amusing in places, slow in others. “Matilda” won’t be knocked off its Dahl top spot any time soon.

Rating: ***.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Information: +44-844-858-8877 or http://www.charlieandthechocolatefactory.com

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater, Farah Nayeri on Scene in London, Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology and Lance Esplund on art.

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson at warwicktho@aol.com or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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