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Wonka, All Wrong

Who needs yet another sugarcoated adaptation of Roald Dahl's deliciously dark story?



Willy Wonka Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Children's book authors can be a cruel bunch, but Roald Dahl was one of the cruelest. Only the Grimm brothers outdid him when it came to visiting horrors on some poor fictional tot. Dahl, after all, was the man who orphaned James of James and the Giant Peach—at the age of four, no less—by having what must certainly be the world's only carnivorous rhinoceros eat his parents.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is Dahl's masterpiece in this regard, a kind of festival of prepubescent pain. The source of multiple movie and stage adaptations—including Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's bland musical, Willy Wonka, now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater—it starts with the Dickensian sufferings of poor little Charlie Bucket, who lives in a shack with mom and dad and two pairs of bedridden grandparents—both in fact ridden to the same bed. Dad's job screwing caps onto toothpaste tubes is enough to sustain the family for a while, but when he loses it the cabbage soup gets thinner and so do the Buckets. Dahl doesn't soften the situation. "Slowly but surely, everybody in the house began to starve," he writes. And Charlie? "And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, he began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength," Dahl continues, in a passage worthy of a concentration camp narrative. "Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion."

While Charlie's wasting away, the greatest candy maker in the world, Willy Wonka, announces that he's hidden golden tickets in five candy bars; those lucky enough to find one will get a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of product. Charlie cheats death by finding a ticket.

At which point the story turns into a bizarre variation on a medieval morality play. Where Charlie goes around expressing an Oliver Twist-ish nobility, the four other winners embody what Dahl saw, 44 years ago, as modern childhood's deadly sins. The fat German kid, Augustus Gloop, is obviously gluttony. Spoiled Veruca Salt is greed. Mike Teavee, the TV addict, could be sloth. And Violet Beauregarde—well, I guess she's just a brat who won't stop chewing gum. The factory tour becomes Dahl's way of damning these pint-sized miscreants and their enabling parents to neatly allegorical—if often sloppily scatological—forms of hell.

Wonka may be the agent of Dahl's wrath, but he's hardly an angel. Dahl makes no bones about the excitable old confectioner's hypocrisy, venality, high-handedness, selective hearing, opportunism, narcissism, and robber baronism. This guy earns a fabulous living catering to precisely the weaknesses he decries—Dahl knows it and he makes sure we do, too. Even Wonka's greatest act of apparent generosity—naming Charlie heir to the factory—is mixed with self-interested calculation. "A grownup won't listen to me; he won't learn," Wonka says by way of explaining his choice of a boy for his successor. "He will try to do things his own way and not mine." One imagines the happy years ahead as an adult Charlie tries to wrest a bit of independence from his ancient benefactor's iron fist.

Dahl's adapters seldom have any trouble with the monstrous things he does to Gloop, Salt, Teavee, and Beauregarde—but they can't seem to tolerate this vision of Wonka as a marvelous, evil genius. They're always trying to get him off the hook somehow. For the 1971 movie, Gene Wilder turned Wonka into a phobic child (pretty much like every other Wilder character). In Tim Burton's 2005 version, starring Johnny Depp, he's a neurasthenic phobic child with Christopher Lee for a father.

The adaptation at Chicago Shakespeare rejects all special pleading and simply renders Wonka 100 percent scrumdiddlyumptiously wonderful. The book by Bricusse and Tim McDonald positions Wonka as narrator—and a magical narrator, at that. So the tale gets told from his point of view and everything good that happens to Charlie becomes part of Wonka's omniscient design, from finding the ticket right through the elimination of the four unworthies to the child candy king's anointing. A disguised Wonka even gives Charlie a nice, Harry Potter-esque striped scarf. If Dahl's Wonka is an angry Old Testament God, this one's Mister Rogers channeling Prospero.

The score (which isn't really a score but a collection of songs Bricusse and Newley originally wrote for the soundtrack of the Gene Wilder film) only compounds the dismal jolliness of it all. We get to hear that strangely compelling "Oompa-Loompa Song" ("Oompa Loompa doompety doo/I've got a perfect puzzle for you"), but we're also subjected to "Pure Imagination," "Think Positive," and the egregious "The Candy Man"—in which we learn that Wonka "mixes it with love and makes the world taste good."

The result of all this sugarcoating, oddly enough, is a very saccharin piece of work. Joe Leonardo's hour-long staging attempts to combat this effect: Charlie's grandparents, the Oompa-Loompas, and a few others are portrayed by Meredith Miller's clever, vivid puppets, and some performances are allowed to edge toward the subversive—most notably George Andrew Wolff's as a fey, hilarious Augustus Gloop.

Even so, there's no getting around the script's texture-forsaken, paradox-neatening, irony-hating core. Sean Fortunato is a solid actor, but he can't help coming across as an amiably dull Wonka: the role's just built that way. Patrick Andrews, meanwhile, is miscast as Charlie. His aura of innocence worked extremely well in American Theater Company's Speech and Debate a few months ago, where it was applied to a kid who trolls the Web for gay assignations; here, though, his winsomeness just seems spazzy.

You may say, But it's a kid's show, for God's sake. It's supposed to be sweet and simple. Well, tell that to Veruca Salt.v

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