Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hold Your Breath, Take a Whiff, Count To Three

Come With Me…


We continued our Broadway tradition this year.  Normal people would have a tradition of simply, “Going to see a play around our daughter’s birthday.”

We don't really do "normal."

Ours is more along the lines of, “Deciding we’re not going to see a play this year, then stumbling upon some kind of discount and going at the last minute.”  That’s the main reason we saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at night instead of a matinee.


Driving into the theater district had worked well for me twice before, but unfortunately paranoia overwhelmed experience due to concern of navigating back to the car near midnight.  I picked a garage as close to the theater as possible, on 47th street, forgetting that’s where Broadway goes pedestrian.

Even with bridge traffic we were passing 49th with plenty of time to make Mass in the beautiful and historical St. Malachy's on that street, a.k.a. "The Actor's Chapel"  Then it took over twenty minutes to go the last two blocks leading to us running from the garage, (past another one on 49th that would have been perfect, alas) to the Church. 

Gotta love the theater district, the choir were an outstanding group of visiting performers from Japan.

Afterwards, we peeked at a randomly occurring street festival on 8th, another continued ad lib portion of our tradition.  We crossed through 48th to wave hello to Bobby’s picture outside the Longacre Theater and went over to the Disney Store, because we can’t help ourselves.

I tried to remember where we got the good pizza from the hole in the wall place before A Bronx Tale, missed by a block, and after a bit of wandering, found it near the Lunt Fontaine Theater on 46th which was our day’s destination. 

Additional construction, and Saturday dinner crowds forced us to enjoy the quality pizza either leaning on a dumpster, or one of several railroad car sized laundry bins for the Marriot Marquis.  The local fragrances led Rosa to state this was her first and last “standing up” pizza dinner.

The outside of the Lunt Fontaine was decorated to look like the Wonka factory, starting the whimsy before we got inside.

In just under a year, I saw two shows that were new, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and A Bronx Tale. The fact that they got a grand total of zero Tony nominations between them makes me question if the committee understands that people go to plays to enjoy themselves.

I also question the sanity of critics, as the biggest complaints I saw about Charlie were:        
               1 )    Minimalist sets
               2 )    Casting adults as the non-Charlie children
               3 )    Too much reliance on humor.

Aside 1: It’s getting harder and harder to call people in their twenties “adults” as I race down the path to old fartdom.

To respond to each of those criticisms:

      1 )    Minimalist sets-
      The main themes of the show musically revolve around, “It must be believed to be seen,” “you and I can make something out of nothing you and I can see things that aren’t there,” and “pure imagination,” duh.
      2 )  Casting adults as the non-Charlie children-  
      That allowed the children to be played as massively over the top caricatures, making them somehow less annoying, and additionally making it hysterically funny when they meet their surprises in more traumatic ways than previous versions.  There is very little to suggest anyone besides Charlie gets out of this factory…and it's a hoot.
      3 )    Too much reliance on humor-
       *general grunts of disbelief while waiving both middle fingers around frantically*

Before I go further I have to set an axiom down.  I know the book came first, and most times I am well in the “book is better than the film” camp.  However, in this case, the Gene Wilder film is the best interpretation of this story, period.

Sure the book is a classic. It’s clever, darkly funny and has valuable morals spread about in it.

But the 1971 film leaves viewers with a sense of hopefulness and joy that stays with them and becomes a part of their life for years and sometimes generations. 

There are also some practicality issues that happen when the medium is changed.

The biggest problem adapting the book, addressed some way or another in most versions, is that the most interesting character isn’t in the first half of the story, and the protagonist succeeds through inaction in the second half.

Also, having both parents for all characters was in the novel, but in a book if someone is inactive, the reader mentally pushes them into the background and they fade out.  On stage or screen inactive characters have to stand around taking up space, and it dilutes from the characterization of the important ones.

Changes to address these issues, as well as alterations from the London version to bring the show more in line with the ’71 film are all given the Jeff stamp of approval.

Though the Broadway version was retooled to match the film, it wasn’t a direct copy, and the conscious decisions for changes played excellently into the new medium.

In many cases with franchises I like (Superheroes, Godzilla) I will complain vociferously about things done wrong, (“Yes, we know,” I hear everyone who has ever met me say.) but in general am not a tough audience. After all, I am a fan of both Batman and Robin and Godzilla 1998.  However, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has been a defining film of my personality and “part of me” for as long as I can remember. Also, “Pure Imagination” has been my favorite song for everish.  (Following a while where it was "The Candyman," that came just after four year old me was singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” on many a gas line in the Seventies, and possibly a period where it was Chuck Berry's
"My Ding A Ling" which I will deny.)  


I went in expecting it to be somewhere between a passable copy and an outright sacrilege.

The only reason that I didn’t immediately agree with my daughter’s assessment as “The best play I’ve ever seen,” is that I went to a few shows before she was born, including The Producers (says the obsessive Mel Brooks fan), Les Miz (says anyone who saw the insane production values in that show) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (says anyone in my immediate family who celebrated our folks thirtieth anniversary at that one.) I'm not saying all three are more favored, but at least one might be.

In fact, it is difficult for me to say the words, “Willy Wonka” now without performing and extended arm “jazz hands” along with it from one of the early songs.  Rosa put Aladdin as her favorite, but Anabelle’s twisted, dark humor genes mostly come from my side of the family.

Aside 2: As loathe as I am to use sports analogies, because I seldom understand them, this show has a “deep bench.”  We saw three understudy grandparents, three understudy parents, and one understudy ticket winner, and there was no gap in the amazingly high quality one expects on Broadway between them and the rest of the gang.

Charlie, the only real child, had an addition from the book’s personality to give him more to do in the second act.  Not only was he good and kind, Charlie was also creative and brimming with ideas. This allowed him to take a more active role, and bond with Wonka as a fellow inventor. It also was used in call backs to link the two acts.  More importantly, it led to him facing a challenge in the factory based on acting, not omission, to demonstrate that sometimes inventiveness must break rules. “A Letter From Charlie Bucket” served as a quieter moment to establish his inner workings amid the many more fast paced songs.

We were lucky to see Ryan Sell (one of three possible Ryans in the role) who’s enthusiasm and non-stop desire to create bubbled off the stage and in his interactions with the crowd after the show.

Aside 3: It is completely unfair to compare actors we saw live on stage to those we heard on the soundtrack CD, yet I shall do it anyway.

Charlie’s mother is pretty much a thankless role. She’s the voice of reason and practicality in a story designed around the moral of “follow your dreams.” Having to sing, “Cheer up Charlie” in the movie, a song the director of that film urges television broadcasts to cut out, doesn't help matters.  Emily Padgett brought a level of emotional support to Charlie and the rest of the family that drove the practicality.  “If you Father Were Here” served as her own wishes song, providing a stronger bond to the rest of the tale, and was a simply beautiful moment in both her performance and the visuals used.

The other three grandparents are, by design, minor roles. As I said, we saw all replacements, and they were still phenomenal as a cynical and dark humored Greek chorus for the first act.   Especially Grandpa George, who got a huge laugh with every short, and doom predicting outburst.


Then there’s Grandpa Joe.  I remembered John Rubinstein from the goofy adventures of Crazy Like a Fox with Replacements owner Jack Warden, and as a Vulcan on EnterpriseIf I wasn’t so late to the Broadway game, I might have been less surprised at how fantastic he was since he originated the role of Pippin and has been all over the stage. His performance as the supportive mentor and best friend to Charlie, all wrapped up in an awesomely loopy, crazy old man package, was a sight to behold. His being a former employee of Wonka’s allowed an internal source for some of the exposition, and was the only worthwhile thing saving from the Tim Burton 2005 fiasco.

Aside 4: I love Tim Burton, but there are really some things he shouldn’t be allowed to touch…ever.

“I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” was inserted into the New York show for Charlie and Grandpa Joe interwoven with callbacks to other original songs, making it an organic fit. “A Golden Ticket” has become slang for great opportunities from the original story, but the song itself so perfectly epitomizes the levels of joy and amazement that go along with those opportunities, I’m not sure why anyone would leave it out in the first place. 

Aside 5: Yes, I will continue to reference all that is glorious about the movie.  Deal.

That song, and the relationship between Charlie and his Grandpa is topped off by the “Charlie, You and I" new to Broadway number being a weaved in song that gets used twice as an uplifting and heartwarming way to show how Charlie’s creativity bonds him to other characters.

The two and a half hours of the show flew by.  Act One would traditionally be slower, but was speeded along , thanks to  the four other “children” receiving their tickets being connected via some entertainingly narcissistic and stuck on each other newscasters (Jared Bradshaw and Stephanie Gibson.)  Charlie’s end of things are linked with two sets of meetings: the “Candyman” and Mrs. Green (Kyle Taylor Parker) the used vegetable saleswoman and near endless source of bringing the funny.

The second act needs no help with pace, flying along as each child receives their comeuppance to tunes that are just as dynamic and fun as their introductions.  The songs take a break in the factory for a bit to allow some inspired mime where Wonka abuses the other kids with not so imaginary traps.  

Classic Broadway musical staging? 
No, but funny as anything.

Again, having them played by adults allowed them to be far more of a symbol than an actual child, letting their darker natures and endings be played for comedy gold.

Veruca Salt was portrayed by the dazzlingly sweet and friendly Emma Pfaeffle. She explained –in story- why she was OK after the show to some young autograph seekers and gave Anabelle a toe shoe brand recommendation.  Yes, toe shoes, because for reasons I can’t adequately explain, turning the epitome of the western spoiled rich girl into a Russian ballerina worked exceptionally well to raise the humor and entertainment level.  In other words, Mr. Salt (played by also excessively smiley and personable post show Colin Bradbury) the crowning satire of commercial capitalism, was a thickly accented Soviet. 

Don’t bother thinking about it too hard, it worked, and it was funny.

Additionally, it complemented the return of the novel’s squirrels in act two.

Giant, black, demon eyed, child rending, dancing squirrels used  for a twistedly funny Nutcracker multiple edged visual and auditory pun.

Fun for the whole family!
But I get ahead of myself.

Updates were needed in several adaptations for two of the bad children, due to changing times.

Gum Chewing is barely a punishable offense these days, but turning Violet and her father into Hollywood self-promotion celebrity wannabees, positioning her gum record as a pointless reason for fame, expanded the issue to proper levels.  It was one of several sources of genre variety, something that doesn’t matter in film or print but helps keep a musical fresh and interesting.  Talya Groves belted out the “Queen of Pop” for all she was worth, enlivening the stage.  It was “poppy” for several reasons, with enough Broadway dash to make it much stronger than its bubble gum music inspiration.  

Aside 6: Wokka wokka!

Alan H. Green as her dad had over the top enthusiasm (visible when he came out after the show as well) that made his reaction to the loss of a child (I can’t believe I'm saying this) laugh out loud funny on stage.  Yay, caricatures!

The other update was Mike Teavee.  No longer addicted to Westerns, instead he’s a hacker who digitally steals his ticket and wastes his life on the multiple versions of personal viewing technology available today.  Michael Wartella (also gracious and fun in real life, as well as a fan of Anabelle's sparkly jazz hand gloves and skulls shirt) portrayed him as a techno punk Pee Wee Herman.  Meanwhile, his mom was the stereotypical over medicated, over armed, over faux patriotic Middle American.  The difference between targets of the characters meant “What Could Possibly Go Wrong” shifted back and forth between a Cohenesque salute (think Alice Cooper’s “I Love America” off of Lace and Whisky) and head banging riffs, but like many of the other weird combinations used, fit the show well.

Aside 7: Notice that the Broadway show points out the flaws in several stereotypical types of Americans, except New Yorkers…because New Yorkers are awesome.

This was the only “replacement” actor that was obvious, but only because we knew Jackie Hoffman from other roles, and could see that Mrs. Teavee had some lines crafted with her in mind.  Madeleine Doherty besides being as wonderful as everyone else who came out, appeared in the opening of The Producers, and the awesomeness that was Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas. She was therefore no slouch in the comedy department and turned in a fantastic performance.  If we didn't know who Jackie Hoffman was, her substitution would have been as transparent as the rest, and some of her singing seem to have more oomph to it. (Again, unfair comparison, don't care.)

The one who needed no updating was greedy Augustus, played by the extremely personable F. Michael Haynie, who referenced both Marvel and Star Wars when he came out to sign.  He imbued a great deal of that hyper happy temperament though the oversized suit into the young Mr. Gloop. 

To ratchet up the Bavarian influences in them, he and Paloma Garcia-Lee (I think, where the heck is my Playbill?) playing his equally Germanically Happy Mutter kept the accents going full steam.

And to prove the levels of fun the exhibited:
During "More of Him to Love," they yodeled. 

I rest my case.

The over the top characterizations had already made the children’s exits in act two laugh inducing, and this was driven home by the musical accompaniment.

The Oompa Loompas, created by the entire ensemble with small body puppets and ninja suits, had a series of ditties for each kid’s departure.  The book had lyrics, but because it was a book, they don’t lend themselves to Broadway level musical accompaniment all that well. The original film had the famous song, but it's the same for all of them with minor variations. 
For Broadway, ya need more.

While the original London version of this show created new and thematically appropriate songs for each of the four, Broadway went one (or two) better.

First, they incorporated the 1971 “Oompa Loompa Doopady Doo” theme as a bit of self-referential introduction for the gang, because people expect it…and it’s awesome.

Second, they reduced the amount of pop music in the show by dropping a musical farewell to Violet, and instead gave us “When Willy Met Oompas” a completely unexpected Origin Salsa for the gang that has been stuck in my head since we left the theater.

Ay ay ay ay!


I saved the star of the show for last, because that was truly the make it or break it point of the evening.

Well beyond my Captain Kirk Conundrum, I could not picture Willy Wonka being anything other than a copy of Gene Wilder to be “correct…”

Until Christian Borle stepped on stage when the show started that night.

With a wild eyed expression that was simultaneously an infinitely inviting and nurturing grin, and the terrifying smirk of dangerous madman, he took the first step to convincing me that his character is, to use an extremely appropriate Doctor Who comparison given the nature of Mr. Wonka, a regeneration of Gene Wilder’s version.

Different personality, different mannerisms, but the core individual was the same.

Aside 8: Willy Wonka is like the type of teacher many of us have known, where a majority of the students are terrified even at the thought of being in their class, but the select few who “get” their motivations end up with one of the richest learning experiences of their entire education.


Notice, before yet another personal meandering, I did say “when the show started.”  

Charlie’s inactivity in Act Two was handled by a personality shift. Wonka’s absence in Act One was handled by removing it.  Instead he leads off the show using the beloved, and deserving to be there, “Candyman” to introduce himself, his plight, and his decision to masquerade as a candy store owner to keep tabs on the progress of his Golden Ticket plan. This is a much more direct ploy than the suggested one in the 2010 Opera, that also used adults as the other children. It was far less fun, however, because…opera.

This not only keeps the main character on stage for what would be a missing half of the show, but allows interactions and connections with Charlie to develop throughout the whole story.

Borle handles all sides of the beloved trickster character with equal skill, demonstrating this with the three numbers in a row he leads at the center of the show.

“It Must Be Believed to Be Seen” has a macabre, cane twirling, vaudevillian air, reminiscent of (to reference the master of musical stage theatrics again) Alice Cooper’s, “Some Folks” or “Last Man on Earth.”

“Strike That, Reverse It” is a Gilbert and Sullivanesque patter song, with a quick Groucho Marx reference in case there’s anyone left who doesn’t get the trickster mentor idea.

And “Pure Imagination” had all the sweetness and strength it should.

Even the London version put that song in, knowing the importance it carries.  I could try to do a detailed explanation of why Broadway’s original “The View From Here,” with its call backs to previous songs showing Charlie’s connections to both Grandpa Joe and Willy Wonka, and its building to a powerful crescendo makes a better eleventh hour number than “Pure Imagination” which has a powerful middle, but a subtle and more subdued ending.

Instead I’ll use the much simpler explanation provided by our Human Resources Manager when I was telling her they put “Imagination” back in the chocolate room…”

And she blurted out, “Because that’s where it goes!”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway is EXACTLY why a adaptational remake should be done.  To introduce something special to new audiences and take advantages of the differences in another media.

Aside 9: The security guy at the stage door told us Mr. Borle never comes out after the performances, which is understandable given his amount of time on stage.  I was surprised that none of the ensemble Oompa Loompas came out either.  That is until I realized, while staring at the Lunt Fontaine theater exterior completely done up to look like the Wonka Factory, that, 
“Nooooooo-body ever goes in, and nooooobody ever comes out.”

We drove home filled with the joy and good feeling the 1971 film always provides, with many new and catchy songs stuck in our heads.

Almost every one practically requiring a kick line and jazz hands.

In spite of my wife and daughter telling me I was crazy suggesting we might stop somewhere afterwards back in the planning stages - because it would be far too late and they’d be exhausted - they both asked to stop at our favorite diner on the way home, which I gladly did.

          A)   Because the “daddy was right” moments are few and far between.
          B)   Because that’s what you do.

Aside 10: There are hints at the idea that Wonka orchestrates the contest in the book and several other adaptations.

The immediate presence at every finding of Slugworth, a.k.a. “Mr. Wilkinson, he works for me,” in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory provides even stronger evidence that Wonka knows and is controlling where the Golden Tickets go.  

The stage musical emphasizes this further by his Candyman persona, his bonding with Charlie, and listing the other children in his book…

Which leads to a somewhat disturbing set of options.

Either Wonka selected and tested all the negative children because he believed they could provide something to his company that would be a benefit:

Augustus- deep knowledge and love of food
Veruca- business sense and experience with multiple companies
Violet- marketing, self-promotion and brand building
Mike- modern technology, computer security

Or, more likely given his relationship with Charlie:

Wonka knew exactly who would get the “prizes” and deliberately lured a group of irredeemably nasty children into his factory to eliminate them.

“Living there, you’ll be free, if you tru-ly

Wish…

To

Be.”



3 comments:

Michael Frissora said...

I get hung up on originals. That's probably why I will always consider Gene Wilder the one and ONLY Mr. Wonka. Just sayin!

P.S. Can I have the name of the toe shoe brand recommendation? I'm thinking of taking an introductory ballet class. I already have my tights and my tu-tu!

Cuz Michael

Jeff McGinley said...

I think I may have shared your feeling to an even stronger degree before seeing this. I've based chunks of my personality on the Wilder version. Ask anyone I've given a tour of the engineering labs. But, perhaps because of the change in medium, this one really came off a as Time Lord like regeneration, and a different incarnation of the same character. He just felt right.

Thank you for reading and sharing...and giving me an outstanding mental image. I'd pay good money to see you in a tutu and pointe shoes.

Heck, I could join you and we could both retire on the residuals from the YouTube advertisements.

Michael Frissora said...

Great idea! I’m in!