This West End semihit may use the title of the original Roald Dahl novel, but it is very clearly based more on the classic film version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It resembles the movie far more closely than the book, with protagonist Charlie Bucket fleshed out into a real, three-dimensional child character rather than the absurdly perfect ten-year-old saint seen in the book, several song titles taken directly from lines from the movie, and even a brief taste of one of the film’s most famous songs, “Pure Imagination”.
And there you have the primary reason it doesn’t work: it may be much less overtly terrible than Tim Burton’s movie remake from 2005, but it suffers from the same basic problem. Stage adaptations of iconic musical films rarely succeed, at least in high-profile venues, because it’s almost impossible to equal the quality of a film like Willy Wonka, and there’s no point in buying theater tickets if you can watch a vastly better version of the material at home for a fraction of the cost.
Admittedly, the show does make some attempt to be more than just an onstage copy of the film, with a mostly original score and a rewritten ending, but given the underwhelming quality of the adaptation, they might have actually been better off hewing closer to the film. This is one of those shows in the Starlight Express vein, where the visuals are the most interesting thing about the show and people are coming largely to gawk at the sets, and while that kind of show does tend to do better in London than on Broadway, it still isn’t the most respectable approach to theater.
Granted, the show does have a few other redeeming features; Douglas Hodge gave a tremendous performance as Willy Wonka in the original cast, with just the right combination of whimsy and menace for the role, and Marc Shaiman’s score has its moments. The catchy pop tune “Double Bubble Duchess” for Violet, the hilarious “It’s Teavee Time” for Mike Teavee and his mother, the touching ballad “If Your Mother Were Here” for Charlie’s parents, Wonka’s introductory showstopper “It Must Be Believed To Be Seen”, and his tongue-twistingly clever “Strike That, Reverse It” are all delightful.
But the rest of the score is fairly forgettable, and there are two perfectly awful production numbers for the Oompa-Loompas, “Juicy” (an attempted satire of Reality-TV empty celebrity) and “Vidiots” (with lyrics that attempt online slang like ‘LOL’ with the air of someone who has never actually seen it used), that are ridiculously out-of-place with the tone of the original story. And even the good songs don’t remotely approach the impact of the film’s legendary Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse score, so the whole enterprise seems rather pointless.
Even the sets, impressive as they are, are not completely successful…there are some things that are necessary for this story that you simply cannot do on a live stage, and there are moments in the show where this becomes painfully obvious. Like I said, this is by no means as bad as the Tim Burton film, but it suffers from the same fatal redundancy…we’ve already got a perfect Willy Wonka musical, and we really need to stop trying to replace it with imitators that could never possibly live up to the original.