You eat with your eyes, the saying goes, and if that's the case "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is downright delicious. Colorful, cleverly costumed, and even more cleverly lighted, the new touring production making its debut at Shea's this week is a stimulating mix of the sweet and satiric, with some surprisingly devilish bits tossed in for spice.
The world has seen several incarnations of Willy Wonka, the eccentric chocolate maker who can make the best candy in the world but has no taste for naughty children. Roald Dahl wrote him as something of a mischievous elf, and we have seen him on film as both a childlike genius (Gene Wilder) and a rather creepy character (Johnny Depp).
For the new musical, Noah Weisberg gives us a fun-loving Wonka who opens the show by giving away the punchline -- that he is looking for someone to succeed him at his chocolate factory. Disguised as a candy shop owner, he then hits it off immediately with poverty-stricken Charlie Bucket, an unlikely candy connoisseur, while the strains of "The Candy Man" play in our heads. It doesn't hurt that Charlie tells the disguised newcomer that he thinks Willy Wonka is the greatest chocolate maker in the whole world, to which Wonka modestly responds, "Well, I'd say he's in the top .... one."
Three boys share the role of Charlie on the tour. Henry Boshart was on stage this night and seemed to be a natural in the part, a good foil for Wonka's wisecracks and wordplay, like when he's referred to as a "little wrapper sniffer" in one of Wonka's throw-away lines.
Fans of the original story will appreciate how truly the show honors Dahl's odd and sometimes grotesque sense of humor, even among the four-grandparents-in-a-bunk-bed, who have some lively moments considering they are at death's door.
The other four winners of the Golden Tickets that bring them to Wonka's chocolate factory also don't suffer for some minor tweaking: the gum chewing Violet has her own YouTube channel before her spectacular demise; spoiled little Veruca Salt dances her own version of "The Nutcracker" as giant squirrels plot her grisly end; and Mike Teavee has added a cellphone and other screens to his television compulsion.
Only Augustus Gloop remains as he began 50 years ago, with the same insatiable hunger that lands him in the soup. The 11-year-old boy with me found their eliminations particularly entertaining.
Top props, however, go to the Oompa Loompas and their fantastic chorus line work in a perfect reworking of an old comic costuming trick that cuts them down in size while upping the laugh factor. I could watch that ensemble all night, with their maniacal smiles and outstanding choreography.
At nearly two and a half hours, the show runs a little long, and while the lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman are witty, it's unlikely anyone will be humming anything other than "Candy Man" on the way out. Oddest of all was how anticlimactic it was to see Wonka and Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator at the end, although the light design on the layered staged played beautifully.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
3.5 stars (out of four)
Updated musical based on Roald Dahl's classic children's book about an eccentric chocolate maker's search for an heir. At Shea's Buffalo Theatre, 646 Main St., through Sept. 29. Tickets available at the box office or sheas.org.