Transforming the classic tale of golden tickets, chocolate rivers and a mysterious factory into a Broadway stage production was nothing short of pure imagination.
In retooling the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” musical, which opens June 18 at The Smith Center, Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien employed clever changes to bring Willy Wonka’s world of magnificent rooms, fantastical vehicles and imaginative confections to American stages.
The beloved Gene Wilder movie based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book tells the story of the eccentric Wonka and his mysterious chocolate factory.
When young Charlie Bucket finds a golden ticket, he becomes one of five children to win a tour of the factory and discover its many rooms dedicated to edible wallpaper, fizzy lifting drinks and never-ending gobstoppers.
One by one, the children fail to heed Wonka’s rules and are subsequently dropped from the tour, alongside a relevant song about morality, until only Charlie remains.
“Chocolate Factory” premiered six years ago in London before opening on Broadway in 2017.
When O’Brien took over as director for the U.S. run, he identified a few changes he wanted to make.
“The Brits grew up on the book, while Americans grew up on the movie,” O’Brien says. “Our memory is much more affected by Gene Wilder’s performance.”
O’Brien noted that much of the show’s humor was quintessentially British, favoring dry wit and dark jokes. He saw opportunities to imbue the show with more music, more ideas — and more Oompa-Loompas.
The biggest snag he saw fit to change was a distinct lack of Wonka.
“In the British version, you don’t see Willy until the end of the first act,” O’Brien says. “The story by Dahl was never intended for the stage. It’s weird to have the star in his dressing room until the second act.”
O’Brien reorganized the story, bringing Wonka out at the beginning, disguised as the candy man. It’s Wonka, portrayed by the lanky, curly-haired Noah Weisberg, who sings the eponymous song.
“It was scary at the beginning,” Weisberg says. “All ages love and relate to this story.”
Weisberg’s portrayal includes the performance of new songs including “Strike That, Reverse It,” in which Weisberg races around the stage, spewing impossibly fast lyrics.
When taking flight in the great glass elevator, Wonka and Charlie perform Weisberg’s favorite song in the musical, “The View From Here.”
“There’s this great lyric that says, ‘When a boy has just a touch of odd, And he walks the streets without a nod, He should know that odd is a gift from God,’ ” Weisberg says. “It’s so beautiful. The three young actors who rotate the role of Charlie are great actors and great kids.”
Weisberg thinks that while audiences are delighted by the fantasy of winning a golden ticket, it’s the story’s message that keeps them captivated through the decades.
“The message is that kindness, sincerity and use of imagination are so much more important than wealth or fame or greed,” he says. “That’s always the universal message.”
Weisberg admits that he never saw Johnny Depp’s take on the role in the 2005 remake. And he made a conscious decision not to rewatch the original movie after nabbing the role.
“I love Gene Wilder and that version,” Weisberg says. “But I didn’t want to get caught up trying to be him.”
Instead, O’Brien told him to bring his own vision to the role.
“You’ve got to find someone with that Wonka propensity, that wild sense of imagination,” O’Brien says. “The things this story requires, Noah has that craziness and imagination inside him.”
On stage, that wonderment is matched by bold, vibrant sets, dancing Oompa-Loompas and, of course, chocolate.
“People, even adults, love a story about getting a chance,” O’Brien says. “Getting to do this my entire life is my golden ticket. I’m very grateful.”