You only have to recall how poor James's parents get devoured by a bizarrely carnivorous rhinoceros in James and the Giant Peach to know that a big and rambunctious nasty streak runs through Roald Dahl's writing. And it continues into his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Augustus Gloop disappears into a chocolate river, Violet Beauregarde turns into a blueberry, Mike Teavee becomes miniaturized, and Veruca Salt-well, let's not talk about what happens to Veruca Salt.
So my greatest worry with regard to the 2013 musical adaptation of Dahl's book-which ran for nearly nine months on Broadway and has come to Chicago now in a national touring production-was that it would dilute the mayhem in deference to a mass audience. My misgivings seemed justified too, when the show started with one of history's most insipid songs, explaining how the Candy Man mixes rainbows, dew, chocolate, and love to make the world taste good.
But as it turns out, Augustus, Violet, Mike, and Veruca all get what's coming to them in delightfully grotesque (and nicely engineered) ways. A squirrel ballet during the Veruca segment makes for an amusingly macabre parody of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, and there's something weirdly liberating about the sight of Oompa Loompas toting knives.
I still have my quarrels with Charlie. Noah Weisberg's Willy Wonka, in particular, is too transparently benign in the way he manipulates events so that Charlie is sure to succeed him as the chocolate king. He'd be more interesting if he were taken by surprise as Charlie causes his misanthropy to crumble. Also, the second act devolves into an arbitrary succession of set pieces. The spectacle is exhilarating, though, and, yes, satisfyingly gross. v