‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ a sweet gig for director and former Old Globe artistic leader Jack O’Brien
If you’re looking for someone who can take a rainbow and wrap it in a sigh, Jack O’Brien might not quite be your guy. (Although he does know a bloke: First name Candy, last name Man.)
But if you’re looking for a stage director who can bounce nimbly from the Bard to Arthur Miller to a musical based on a treasured bit of kid lit, O’Brien is your jack of all plays.
The three-time Tony Award winner, who led San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre as artistic director from 1981 to 2007, just opened a well-received revival of Miller’s “All My Sons” on Broadway.
But he’s on the phone from his Connecticut home to talk about “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the musical he shepherded to Broadway in 2017 and that’s now about to land in San Diego on tour for the first time.
O’Brien, whose heavyweight credits take in everything from “Henry IV” to the original production of “Hairspray” (both of which earned him Tonys), took over “Charlie” — based on the beloved Roald Dahl novel — after its initial London production a few years back.
And it was clear from the start that changes were in order for what he calls a “very, very British” staging.
“It just seemed that version wouldn’t play in America at all,” O’Brien says. “So we really started over. We crafted a completely new concept for the show.
“And we started with ‘The Candy Man’” — one of the numbers from the classic 1971 movie adaptation that O’Brien and Co. added to the existing score by the “Hairspray” songwriting team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
“I just wanted it to be brighter and funnier and a lot more inventive. So when we opened in New York, it was like doing a brand-new musical.”
Even then, he adds, “we hadn’t really finished the work.” So after the Broadway production closed in early 2018, O’Brien and his team redesigned and rewrote the show for its touring version, later incorporating additional changes worked out in a separate Australian production.
The resulting show, which arrives at the Civic Theatre next Tuesday, is “the version, frankly, I’m proudest of,” O’Brien says. “And the one I wish New York had seen. Because we really figured out how to do it.”
As with Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel, the story centers on a poor kid named Charlie who wins a coveted “golden ticket” to visit the chocolatier Willy Wonka’s fabled confectionary works. Intrigue, misadventures and Oompa Loompas ensue.
O’Brien is a fan of the late Gene Wilder’s turn as Willy in the movie version: “My God, it’s a miracle of invention and looniness and sweetness. He ticked all the boxes.
“But when we got into it, the piece was never originally conceived for the theater. It was a fable for children,” with an unwieldy structure.
The new version plays up the paternal angle to the bond between Charlie and Willy (a topic that’s explored very differently in Miller’s “All My Sons”).
“And we did not take anything for granted,” O’Brien says. “We took it to our hearts and we dug in and we’ve made it into something we think is really kind of amazing.”
The ever-in-demand O’Brien won’t be making it to San Diego for the show’s local debut. But, he says, “I love that town and I owe it a great deal,” adding that he has spoken regularly with Old Globe artistic chief Barry Edelstein about returning to direct a show at the Balboa Park theater.
“Every year we look at the schedule and say, ‘Is there any way we can make this work?’ And by God, sooner or later we’re going to do it, I’m sure.”
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’
When: Opens May 14. 7 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday. Through May 19.
Where: Broadway/San Diego at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: About $26-$73
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100
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