Drama has never been central to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Roald Dahl’s story and the two so-so movie versions used vivid prose or super-saturated-color visuals to disguise the lack of tension. Onstage in Sam Mendes’ production, its absence is everywhere apparent. Mark Thompson’s all-stops-out design keeps diverting attention from the all-pervasive problem, but both the dismaying first act and somewhat stronger second act feel, for the most part, woefully static. Since tuners thrive on movement, physical and emotional, that is, to put it mildly, disappointing. 

Aside from the addition of a clutch of surprisingly negligible songs from the “Hairspray” team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, little has changed. David Greig’s book redraws details but cleaves to the original trajectory in which kindly young Charlie (sweetly hopeful Jack Costello, at the performance reviewed) wins one of five tickets to visit the chocolate factory of everyone’s dreams.

Puzzlingly, the show begins with an animated film. It portrays how chocolate bars are made yet serves no dramatic function. However, using drawing by Dahl’s celebrated and beloved illustrator Quentin Blake, it may have been politically difficult to excise.

The rambling introductory song that follows is a further indication that drive is missing, not least in the dance department. Peter Darling’s dynamic choreography has been critical to the success of both “Billy Elliot” and “Matilda” but here he’s stymied. There’s a number for Charlie’s four grandparents, but since they’re all bed-bound there’s little he can do but move their beds. Elsewhere, a title character who meekly stands by while things happen to other individuals, plus the lack of outbreaks of collective spirit, further reduces opportunities for the elation of dance.

Charlie’s generous spirit is starkly contrasted by the other four repugnant, spoiled-brat children. Gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Jenson Steele) is now Bavarian, complete with dirndl-and-blonde-plait-wearing mother singing with an oompah-brass band. Veruca (Tia Nokes) is now a screaming, hyperglycemic wanna-be ballerina; Violet (Adrianna Bertola) is a finger-snapping, would-be diva whose father raps about her. Mike Teavee (Jay Herman) is now an aggressive videogame geek who yells and punches to aggressive techno (“They said it was a phase / When he set the cat ablaze”) while terrifying his suburban mother (winningly demented Iris Roberts).

Neatly character-appropriate though these songs are, the taut playing by the 16-piece band of Doug Besterman’s orchestrations proves more pungent than the material. Too many songs sound like exercises in style. Furthermore, too many lyrics are indistinct thanks to over-speedy word-setting, a problem exacerbated by over-reliance on patter-songs, weak diction and sound design.

It’s the only tuner in recent memory that doesn’t have a megamix curtain-call — which may be a good taste call on Mendes’s part, but it’s also an indication that there are no joyous songs to reprise. And the fact that the sole number to resonate is “Pure Imagination,” written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse and lifted from the 1971 movie, is something of an indictment.

In top hat, maroon frock-coat and spats, Douglas Hodge’s exuberantly exasperated Willy Wonka is a technicolor cross between the Cat in the Hat and Cesar Romero as Batman’s Joker. Hodge’s piercing glee charges up the dialogue but the viciousness of his malign response to everyone else’s behavior is so unmotivated as to be unnerving. Only in rare moments of tenderness does he offer charm.

Both he and the show liven up in the second half. Thompson’s hugely imaginative design work, supported by Paul Pyant’s crisp lighting, dictates the tone of the fun factory and, to a great extent, its humor. He solves the problem of the Oompa-Loompas by taking the idea used for Lord Farquaad in “Shrek the Musical” (also produced by Mendes’ Neal Street Prods.) and going to town with it. He even flies them in on a beautiful, industrial set, positioning their fake legs for an amusing tap routine.

In the penultimate scene, he scores again with his realization of the great glass elevator that rises high above Pyant’s glittering star cloth to add pathos. But mostly the show is a case of too many characters and not enough character.

Comparisons may be odious, but it’s impossible not to consider “Matilda,” the other recent Roald Dahl morality-tale-turned-tuner. That show played fast and loose with its source, inventing an entirely new plot line. Straying from the letter but enhancing the sprit, it heartened and strengthened the material. Similarly defiant irreverence could have energized this.

The hefty promotion of the recognizable title plus the creative team’s track record has already ensured sales healthy enough to have seen the booking period (now extended to May 31). The show’s visual splendor allows audiences to see how well their money has been spent. Dramatically, however, they’ve been short-changed.

Musical numbers: Act I: “Creation Overture,” “Almost Nearly Perfect,” “The Amazing Tale of Mr. Willy Wonka,” “A Letter From Charlie Bucket,” “More Of Him To Love,” “When Veruca Says,” “The Double Bubble Duchess,” It’s Teavee Time,” “If Your Mother Were Here,” “Don’t Ya Pinch Me, Charlie,” “It Must Be Believed To Be Seen.” Act II: “Strike That! Reverse It,” “Simply Second Nature,” “Auf Wiedersehen Augustus Gloop,” “Juicy!” “Veruca’s Nutcracker Sweet,” “Vidiots,” “Pure Imagination,” “A Little Me,” It Must Be Believed.”

Theater Review: Sam Mendes’ ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

Theater Royal Drury Lane, London; 2,192 seats; £67.50 ($104 top). Reviewed June 22, 2013, opened June 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

  • Production: A Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, Langley Park Prods., Neal Street Prods. presentation of a musical in two acts based on the novel by Roald Dahl, book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman.
  • Crew: Directed by Sam Mendes. Choreographed by Peter Darling. Musical direction, Nicholas Skilbeck. Sets and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Paul Pyant; sound, Paul Arditti; video and projections, Jon Driscoll; puppets and illusions, Jamie Harrison; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; production stage manager, Chris Hesketh.
  • Cast: Douglas Hodge, Jack Costello, Nigel Planer, Jenson Steele, Tia Noakes, Adrianna Bertola, Jay Heyman, Clive Carter, Jasna Ivir, Paul J Medford, Iris Roberts, Billy Boyle, Roni Page, Myra Sands, Alex Clatworthy, Jack Shalloo, Kate Graham, Ross Dawes, Michelle Bishop, Joe Allen, David Birch, Michelle Bishop, Mireia Mambo Bokele, Ross Dawes, Nia Fisher, Kate Graham, Derek Hagen, Clare Halse, Mark Iles, Daniel Ioannou, Kieran Jae, Natalie Moore-Williams, Sherrie Pennington, Damien Poole, Antony Reed, Paul Saunders.