Not even Oompa Loompas can save this foundering Factory

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Noah Weisberg (center) is Willy Wonka with the touring company of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Below: Wonka leads golden ticket-winners on a tour of his factory. Photos by Joan Marcus

A golden ticket doesn’t buy you much these days – a cut-rate touring musical with chintzy sets, a mediocre score and about as much joy as you’d find in a board meeting about turning wacky movies into boring musicals.

You’d be justified in hoping for more from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a new musical re-working of the 1964 novel by Roald Dahl and the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The show, with a score by Hairspray and “Smash” tunesmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, opened in London’s West End in 2013 and had changed drastically (new director, designer and choreographer, more songs from the movie) when it bowed on Broadway four years later. That’s the version now on tour at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre. It should be fun, funny, dark and wondrous – like the novel and parts of the movie (hello, Gene Wilder as the wonkiest of Wonkas) – but it’s none of those things. More like schematic, uninspired and dull.

I saw the original London production and was profoundly disappointed. Clearly, millions had been spent on elaborate sets and costumes, and Shaiman and Wittman are among my favorite contemporary Broadway composers. But nothing really worked in that production, and I was hopeful that the changes made for Broadway would liven up the property. I was especially intrigued by the notion of replacing all the child actors – except protagonist Charlie Bucket – with adult actors. As the nasty golden ticket-winners tour Wonka’s factory, they get their comeuppance in rather nasty ways, and it was hard finding any joy in watching live children get sucked into chocolate rivers, turned into blueberries and thrown down garbage chutes.

The good news is that it is indeed much funnier watching bad things happen to bad children played in exaggerated ways by adults. The bad news is that’s hardly enough to save this tepid endeavor. The entire first act centers on gathering the group of golden ticket winners who will be the first civilians ever to be allowed inside the marsh-hallowed halls of Wonka’s chocolate factory. There are only five tickets hidden in the wrapping of five Wonka chocolate bars, which means we have to get through five songs introducing each of the winners. Act 1 ends with the kids and their parents about to enter the factory. So basically, Act 1 feels like a looooong prologue.

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Act 2 is definitely livelier, largely thanks to the half-human/half-puppet Oompa Loompas (puppetry and illusions designed by the great Basil Twist), and even though the underwhelming score doesn’t improve, you find yourself hoping that the wonders of the factory will allow for some stage dazzle. Alas, Mark Thompson’s set is dominated by giant screens, and there’s really nothing wondrous about screens. If we’re going to spend this much time watching screens, we might as well just watch the movie again.

There’s not a lot the actors can do with this material, but they do their best. Noah Weisberg is a game but unremarkable Wonka who is forced to spend the first act pretending to run a small candy shop in the slum Charlie and his desperately impoverished family call home. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, Charlie was played by Henry Boshart (who shares the role with Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood) in a bright and friendly fashion. It’s too bad that the moment when Charlie finds his golden ticket is such a massive let down. Director Jack O’Brien hardly allows for a beat to transpire before the event happens and is gone.

Other than the songs from the movie – notably “The Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination” and “The Oompa Loompa Song” – nothing in the Shaiman/Wittman score sticks. The Act 1 closer, “It Must Be Believed to Be Seen,” will likely go down as one of the worst act closers in Broadway history. And the ballad for Charlie’s mom (played with winsome loveliness by Amanda Rose), “That Little Man of Mine,” showcases the gross sentimentality that plagues so many of the new songs.

This whole show is such a missed opportunity. There’s enough here for families to have a reasonably enjoyable theater experience, but it would be so much better if kids got to experience something truly magical on stage. What this show feels like is a multimedia conglomerate wanting to maximize a property with minimal creative license. This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great glass elevator ride to nowhere.

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues through May 12 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Review: `The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)’

Some of the enthusiastic cast members of Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) are (clockwise from top right) Nkechi, Alona Bach, Tom Darci and Niko Darci-Maher. Photo by Kevin Berne.


Berkeley Playhouse scores big fun with energetic `Giant’

In only its second full production, Berkeley Playhouse is proving itself to be a joyously reliable practitioner of family theater.

You hear the words “family theater” and tend to think of precious shows on a shoestring budget that mean well but can’t really compete with the wealth of other entertainments grabbing kids’ attention.

But Berkeley Playhouse, under the artistic direction of Elizabeth McKoy, really gets it. McKoy and her team, in addition to running classes for all ages and popular summer programs, create theater that is indeed for the entire family, meaning that adults will enjoy the experience as much as the children.

At a Saturday afternoon performance of The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), a 1982 Roald Dahl story adapted for the stage by David Wood, the packed audience at the Ashby Stage was fairly evenly split between large and small theatergoers – and it’s difficult to imagine anyone in that crowd not having a grand time.

Following last year’s vibrant, vital Seussical, the Musical, Berkeley Playhouse presents something entirely different but equally as entertaining.

From the delectably twisted imagination of Dahl comes the tale of an orphan named Sophie and the BFG, a big, friendly giant in charge of blowing dreams into children’s slumbering brains. One night, a sleepless Sophie sees the giant performing his duties, and rather than risk being tattled on and captured, the giant kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country.

The two lonely souls become fast friends, and Sophie discovers that the BFG is alone among his giant compatriots in that he is neither evil nor flesh eating. The rest of the over-sized bunch, with names such as Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecrusher, Meatdripper and Gizzardgulper, are foul and mean and threatening to go eat children in England.

It’s up to Sophie and the BFG to stop the carnage, so they cleverly enlist the help of the Queen of England, who marshals the resources of her navy and air force.

It’s a charming story, but the telling of it in this imaginative production is the real delight.

The play begins at a birthday party for Sophie (Alona Bach) being held in her family’s attic (fantastic set design by Kim Tolman). It’s total chaos because the hired entertainers haven’t shown up, Sophie’s mom (Nkechi) is screaming into her mobile phone and the children are wreaking havoc on the harried maid.

Sophie’s dad (Tom Darci) arrives with a package, but it’s strangely empty. “Sometimes it’s best to leave things a little loose,” he says. Then Sophie’s teenage brother (Rob Dario) arrives with his skateboarder buddies, prompting one young party-goer to moan: “Teenagers! Devastating!”

But the teens have an idea to restore order to the proceedings. They enlist everyone’s help – child and adult – to act out Sophie’s favorite story, which happens to be The BFG. Using props they find in the attic, they unfurl the story in deliciously creative ways.

The mean, ugly giants, for example, are all created by one kid partnered with one adult using household items such as crutches, umbrellas, colanders and toys. But the designs are ingeniously simple and effective (costumes are by BJ Bandy, props are by Hannah Phillips Ryan – and it’s hard to know where costumes end and props begin).

Darci plays the giant, and Sophie plays herself … sort of. To convey the sense of giant and tiny human, the character of Sophie is played by a stuffed turtle in a nightdress, and the human Sophie provides the voice.

Director Jon Tracy miraculously orchestrates the mayhem and keeps the storytelling crisp and clear. The performers, both young and old, are all capable and better yet, seem to be having a marvelous time. There’s not a weak link in the cast of 14, and everyone gets a moment to shine.

Everyone seems to relish Dahl’s linguistic flourishes as the giant talks of foul-tasting snozzcumbers, brain-bogglingsome dilemmas and stinky but musical whizzpoppers (with a young audience, there’s no end to the delight ignited by flatulence jokes).

Everything about the show is designed with young people foremost in mind. The first act contains the meat of the show, and the long, steam-letting intermission is followed by a short second act and a curtain call that invites a young audience member to come on stage and create a giant from several baskets of toys and props. Then all young audience members are invited to come up and grab a giant prop to take home. The whole experience is a kid-friendly 2 hours and 20 minutes, or thereabouts.

That’s interactive in the best sense. And of course there are winks to the adults as well. Taking a call from the American president, a young man says, “Oh, thanks Barack.” It’s also mentioned in passing that even Sarah Palin has had her share of whizzpoppers.

Fresh, funny and with far more imagination than your average movie, TV show or video game, Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG is a BFD: a bright, fanciful, delight.


The BFG continues through Nov. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $22 for children and $28 for adults. Special “pay what you can” Thursday performances Nov. 6 and 13. Every full-time K-12 teacher gets in free. Call 510-665-5565 or visit