I’ve seen the 1971 film and the 2005 one as well — and was appalled each time.
Whether the title character is Willy Wonka or Charlie, the movies made in their names and set in a chocolate factory strike me as horrible.
The new musical at the Lunt-Fontanne changes a few things here and there. The score is professional; the scenery tries to get by on our pure imagination; the cast is fine except for the child who plays Charlie. Given that he’s one of three rotating in the role, you have a two-to-one chance of missing him, and I hope you do. (His name? No, you know how it works. When a minor commits a crime, his name is not divulged to the public. So let it be here.)
Worse still is the show’s basic premise which we must face head-on: Willy Wonka is a serial killer and, like many of his ilk, he’s not the least bit sorry after he’s murdered. How awful that three of his victims are children. What he does to a fourth is appalling, too.
I know, I know. There are those who love the property, starting with Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel and continuing with Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka in the first film and Johnny Depp’s in the second. I come not to change anyone’s mind – I’d much rather theatergoers have a good time than agree with me — but I do want to file a minority report.
Charlie is a good kid. He loves his mother and bed-ridden grandparents and is willing to share his chocolate bar with them. It was hard-earned from the meager money he made from his after-school job. So imagine his joy to learn that Willy Wonka – the maker of his favorite candy — is sponsoring a contest. Five kids who can find golden tickets spread around the world among millions of chocolate bars will be invited into his factory and will receive a lifetime of candy.
Luckily, Charlie is one of the five. The others are Augustus, as an obese kid who’d eat Willy out of house, home and factory; Veruca, the quintessential spoiled brat; Violet, the incessant gum-chewer and bubble-blower; and Mike, the video-game vulture.
Charlie is only one of two to survive the tour – and Mike doesn’t get off that easily, for he’s shrunk to the size of a Sharpie. Augustus is sent to his death vacuumed in a pipe; Veruca is pulled apart limb from limb by squirrels; Violet expands and explodes.
And what have they done to warrant this punishment? They all disobeyed Willy’s orders. But does that mean they should be murdered? Must capital punishment be the go-to solution? Worse, Willy never – NEVER – is sorry for the three kids’ deaths or Mike’s shrinkage. Ho-hum, all in a day’s work; let’s move on.
It’s all meant to be a cautionary tale: “Kids! Don’t disobey your parents! Behave and you’ll be rewarded!” and “Parents! Don’t overindulge your kids!” But the message comes from a place of fear, not rationality. I’d like a Willy who could change the kids’ behavior by talking – nay, singing – in a calm and reasonable fashion.
There isn’t much calmness or reason in THE LITTLE FOXES, which is as it should be. We hear that one of the libations in the Giddens’ house is elderberry wine. Not much time passes before we hope that it came from Abby and Martha Brewster of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE fame. Regina, her brothers Oscar and Ben and her nephew Leo certainly deserve a tumbler full of it.
As you’ve heard, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are alternating as the voracious Regina and the tender-hearted Birdie in Lillian Hellman’s masterpiece. They and it both shine in the play’s fourth Broadway revival.
We think we’ve seen it all just before the second-act curtain when Regina snarls to her husband Horace “I hope you die! I hope you die soon!” – and in front of their daughter Alexandra, who dearly loves Horace.
But that’s just the appetizer. The entrée comes when Horace is having a heart attack and Regina does n-o-t-h-i-n-g to help him. In this case (and a few others) she’s a woman of her word.
Nixon is a steely Regina throughout the play, which is a fine and supportable choice. Linney is more fascinating, though, in the way she negotiates. She puts on this false smile that says “You KNOW from experience, Horace (or Ben or Oscar — her equally greedy brothers) that I put on this smile in order to show you that I’m starting off nice before I become single-mindedly atrocious. This smile is simply part of the game — Stage One – and you know it comes before the murderous Stages Two and Three that you’d best avoid now. Consider yourself warned.”
Linney makes one move during Horace’s heart attack that Nixon should adopt. As he’s struggling to get up, grabbing at his chest, Linney not only calmly sits, as Nixon does, but then she ever-so-slowly crosses her legs. Her gesture reminds us of a lyric from another wildly successful revival now on Broadway: “I’m staying where I’m at, Horace.”
Nixon seems more vulnerable, though, as Birdie, who married Oscar assuming that he loved her only to later catch on that he needed her Southern aristocracy to give him legitimacy. Or is it that I saw Linney’s Regina and Nixon’s Birdie first and the other way around second? I’d love to talk to those who witnessed them in both roles but in reverse order. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they preferred Nixon’s Regina and Linney’s Birdie. Whom you see first can really make a difference.
What’s the solution? See them both in their two different roles. Yes, that’ll cost you the price of two theater tickets, but the money you outlay on the second one is better spent than on a single ticket to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.