Encore Michigan

You can even eat the dishes with Willy Wonka in Detroit

Review February 20, 2020 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is not just a musical play, it’s a franchise. Because it centers around a child hero and candy, the property is an ATM machine year after year for owners of the franchise. Every school and community theatre in America does the show year after year after year.

Having seen so many amateurish productions over the years, I was a bit jaundice-eyed as I entered the Detroit Opera House. But I was more than pleasantly surprised by the energy and vitality of the story.

The show, now running at the Opera House, part of the Broadway in Detroit series, has the addition of The New Musical attached to its title because this is a non-equity re-tooled version of the original show. Some new songs have been added. Smart phones can be seen. There are references in the dialogue to things au currant to the second decade of the 21st century. There is a lot of cool stagecraft, including the use of a screen and projected animatics to enhance the set scenery.

Cody Garcia plays a snide and witty Willy Wonka, the candy king who puts out five “golden tickets” stuffed into five in a million candy bars with the promise of a special factory tour at the mysterious and magical Wonka plant for those lucky enough to buy the right bars. Each winner is covered by the news.

The first act exposes us to the five kids–four pretty strange oddballs and one normal, sweet kid named Charlie Bucket (played by Brody Bett or Ryan Umbarilla). There is chubby German kid Augustus Gloop, snotty Russian Veruca Salt, oddball gum expert Violet Beauregarde and digital-media obsessed Mike Teavee. Each kid is attended by an equally oddball parent.

The second act is largely the tour, and the dark-comedic demise of each of the four kid contestants through one violent mishap in the factory after another–each arising out of the kid not following directions or the rules set down by Wonka. These “accidents” are pretty gruesome, and give the whole tale a flavor of the Brothers Grimm. Unlike many other productions, the parts of these doomed kids are played by adults instead of kids, which makes the catastrophe for each a little more palatable.

Charlie is a dreamy, obedient, charming kid, who is also seriously poor. He lives in what appears to be a parking lot or alley in a jury-rigged elevated bed with his destitute grandparents–all supported by Charlie’s mother who somehow fills their bellies on the wages of a part-time laundress. His Grandpa Joe accompanies him to the factory after miraculously being able to walk–inspired by his love of Charlie.

There is plenty of visual comedy, like the depictions of the Umpa Lumpas by an ensemble of actors wearing black and appearing as “little people” as they are on their knees and dancing and moving while filling the little Umpa legs with their arms. The same actors presumably also double as squirrels who sort the good nuts from the bad nuts and take part in the demise of one of the ratty kids.

The new musical carries over the classic tunes–”Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination.” There are some news songs, and songs omitted from the films and original plays. It all holds together quite nicely under the direction of Matt Lenz and Choreographer Alison Solomon and Music Superviser Nate Patten, and remains a solid treat for kids, as well as more interesting perhaps for adults. On opening night, there were adults with and without kids.

And as I looked around, I saw no patrons who regretted a trip back their childhoods. It’s a candy coated trip through a magical childhood experience. You can even eat the dishes.