Interesting kid, Charlie Bucket, the young hero of Broadway’s latest family-friendly sensation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He lives in a single parent home. Sort of. While his mom (Emily Padgett) works numerous jobs, the two share their home with all four of Charlie’s grandparents—who have retired (literally) to one seriously gridlocked bed. Not that they mind. In fact, aside from their diet of deceased vegetables and a lack of heat, they seem to enjoy their tucked-in lives.
Still, it’s clear from the beginning of this delectable new musical fantasy—with roots in Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel and the two film versions—that Charlie will somehow get his hands on one of five coveted golden tickets for a tour of the newly opened Wonka Chocolate Factory and a chance to win “a lifetime supply of Wonka chocolate.” More important to Charlie, though, is he’ll get to meet his idol: mysterious confectionary maestro Willy Wonka, embodied by two-time Tony winner Christian Borle in a performance that’s as colorful as his character’s purple jacket, green plaid pants, and orange vest.
And while he’s no slouch when it comes to bedazzling his chocolate-craving fans with snappy patter and footwork, Borle’s Wonka is laced with deliciously subtle hints of menace that the kids in the audience wolf down like fistfuls of Halloween minis.
During the show’s ingenious Act II Factory Tour, Charlie’s fellow Golden Ticket holders—a kaleidoscope of spoiled brats, each accompanied by an equally loathsome parent—tend to ignore instructions and restrictions (no surprise there). Meanwhile, Charlie—kind, inventive and polite—is blown away by the onslaught of Wonkian delights from the Chocolate Lagoon to the Mixing, Nut, and TV Rooms (and, as it turns out, each venue represents a surprise elimination round).
Charlie, as it happens, brings along his wonderfully quixotic Grandpa Joe as his plus-one adult, marking the 91-year-old spinner of tall tales’s first time out of bed in 45 years.
“Of everyone in the show, the most normal are probably Charlie and his mom,” says stage and screen veteran John Rubinstein, who plays Grandpa Joe. “Every other character is larger than life.”
As for creating his role, the Tony-winning actor says he picked up some of the character’s idiosyncrasies growing up, listening to his parents’ friends describe their travels. “These colorful and famous people would sit around for hours telling story after story,” recalls Rubinstein, whose father was famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein and his mother a celebrated New York hostess and patron of the arts.
Photo: Joan Marcus
To these recollections Rubinstein has added other layers to Grandpa Joe. “Before going into the factory he sees Wonka as a superstar and he’s dazzled. But as Act II progresses, the shine gets tarnished,” he says. “Even with all the slapstick comedy that goes on, there’s truth and tragedy.”
Wonka’s duplicitousness aside, the show itself—especially once we’re in the factory and swept up in the musical numbers—is, in every sense of the word, awesome. And don’t get me started on the joy derived every time the adorable Oompa-Loompas make an appearance.
And clearly I’m not the only one to get swept away by the indulgent treats that keep coming at you in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Audiences can’t get enough.
“From beginning to end they carry us on their shoulders with their delight—oohs, aahs, screaming and clapping…like few shows I’ve ever been involved in,” says Rubinstein. “Clearly, it’s not your average children’s show. There’s a madness to it. Maybe that’s why we’re selling out.”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is playing at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre,
205 W. 46th St. For tickets call 877-250-2929 or visit CharlieOnBroadway.com.