Nothing brings some oomph to a musical like an Oompa Loompa or two.
And unfortunately with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” not a whole lot else does.
Those fanciful and freaky factory helpers from the much-loved Roald Dahl kids’ novel are personified with winning wit (and clever puppetry) in the book’s new-ish musical-stage adaptation, whose Broadway touring production just hit the San Diego Civic Theatre.
But what came off as deliciously mordant wit in Dahl’s 1964 saga of a poor boy and a defiantly weird chocolatier often just seems kind of mean in this visually splashy telling, which takes in some familiar songs from the 1971 Gene Wilder film version.
The show also plods for the first 20 minutes or so, as it sets up the story of Charlie’s humble but loving family — including a working single mom, plus five grandparents who all reside in a single bed — and the lad’s big shot at visiting Willy Wonka’s mysterious factory,
Still, give the “Hairspray” songwriting team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who penned most of the “Charlie” score, some credit for succinctly getting us up to speed on the chocolate-maker’s back story early on with “Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka!,” a waltz-time number that young Henry Boshart sang with breezy appeal on opening night. (He alternates in the role of Charlie with Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood).
What Charlie doesn’t know is he’s singing the tune to Willy himself, who has departed his factory to “find a new me” and, in disguise, is running the small candy shop Charlie frequents.
It’s a smart way of keeping Willy an integral part of the story from the start — although given that the “Candy Man” who sings that Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley tune is a bit of a misanthrope (and is blithely cruel to Charlie), it seems a stretch to present him as at all self-reflective.
Noah Weisberg has the right deadpan wit for the part, though, and once Willy’s idea to treat five lucky “golden ticket” winners to a tour of his factory gets rolling, so does the show.
You probably know those characters’ names (and maybe their fates) already: Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), the sausage-loving German kid who’s subjected to shades of fat-shaminess with the song “More of Him to Love"; Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen), the bratty and very rich Russian ballerina; Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams), the overindulged Californian who in this version is a mini pop star in the making; and Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino), now a hacker, video-game addict and skate punk straight outta Iowa.
Director Jack O’Brien — the longtime former artistic leader of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, and now a Broadway eminence — puts lots of pop into the funny sequences that introduce those four and Charlie amid media hysteria.
Mark Thompson’s riotous set and costume design, along with Jeff Sugg’s dazzling projections and Basil Twist’s ingenious puppetry, also boost the wow quotient, and the songs get a good ride from conductor Charlie Alterman’s 12-member orchestra.
And there are good supporting turns from James Young as Charlie’s warmly funny Grandpa Joe, who escorts him on the factory tour; Madeleine Doherty as the booze-loving Mrs. Teavee; and a galaxy of other players. (Oompa Loompas included.)
David Greig’s story adaptation, though, is hit-and-miss at capturing Dahl’s whimsy and his signature mix of heart and gallows humor. When Charlie’s fellow contestants fall victim to their own selfishness and greed, the setups seem a little more sadistic than necessary — and this Wonka plays for keeps.
In looks, the show is like a velvety chocolate cream. In tone, it’s a little brittle.
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’
When: 7:30 p.m. 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