Going big and festive is something the Paramount Theater in Aurora loves to do with its outstanding homegrown musical productions, one of the most positive developments in Chicago theater of the last decade.
But even by those standards, this year’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is an epic, family-friendly adventure filled with crazy machines, cool tubes, video explosions, flying props and enough scenes to make M&Ms the store at the Times. The square looks elegant. All this and a bunch of weird Oompa Loompas are going to ruin the doo.
Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec outdid himself. The boy in the seat across the aisle looked like he was about to pass out from sensory overload.
There’s so much more to see than here on Broadway in 2017It’s where the show opens in an unexpectedly minimalist setting, leaving most people disappointed. There was more chocolate at the concession stand than you’d ever see on stage. That’s not true at Paramount. Fox Valley dazzler with Gobstoppers!
These are all problems with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as a musical work. It’s a cold show, and it stays that way in Aurora.
Let’s face it, Roald Dahl’s dark and complex tales from the 1960s aren’t easy to adapt into family musicals, especially these days, and “Charlie,” whose second act mostly features a strong adult taking on some obnoxious kids, is especially difficult. But “Matilda the Musical” managed to create a wonderful show from the same author’s gestalt, without sacrificing the JK Rowling-like honesty and sense of dread that endeared this author to subsequent generations.
Problems with this series include a chronic lack of focus on Charlie’s family in the second act. Her mother, beautifully played by Jaye Ladymore, sings the most emotional ballad in Act 1, referencing an absent father, but then the mother disappears from the story and the father never reappears. You could argue that the core relationship is between Charlie and his grandfather Joe (Gene Weygandt), but even that goes nowhere in Act 2 when book writer David Greig (a good playwright, but not compatible with big musicals) goes all out. It follows the relationship between Charlie and Willy Wonka (Stephen Schellhardt), with the grandfather getting stuck behind the scenes at critical moments.
The problem here is that Wonka is so mean to so many people for most of the show that you fear that the reward of owning a factory for Charlie might not go so well for him. he needs full of love family help.
This is a problem with the show’s structure, and a problem with the performance central to director Trent Stork’s production. Gene Wilder, as Wonka in the 1971 film, tackled this problem with his twinkling eyes, signaling to everyone that his superiority was designed to serve the needs of the impoverished child whose life he was about to change for the better.
But that never happens: Schellhardt is extremely flamboyant, vocally and otherwise, and I have no doubt that she’s thought through all of her choices, but for this show to work, she needs to open up to being much warmer, kinder, and more vulnerable. FYI, I’ve seen it many times before. It’s a problem ingrained in the ingredient, and without a noticeably generous inner core, the result is neither satisfying nor delicious.
The superb work of the wonderful Meena Sood (Charlie in the performance I saw), the big-hearted Weygandt, and the quality cast and supporting cast could be more than enough for you and your family, especially when combined with a show of this caliber. and great Anthony Newley songs like “Pure Imagination” and “The Candyman,” both hits by the late great Sammy Davis Jr. Here these songs are combined with new songs by the famous duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
The songs have more heart than the book, but Schellhardt and Stork still have the difficult and unfinished business of marrying the two. Here is the Golden Ticket.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2.5 stars)
When: Until January 14
Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Working time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Tickets: $28-$79 at 630-896-6666 and www.paramountaurora.com