06/25/2013 08:08 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

First NIghter: Sam Mendes's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" Needs Sweetening

London--If you're a chocoholic like me, you're hoping Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will be as delectable as biting into a piece of fudge or a brownie or triple chocolate ice cream.
Sorry, fellow chocolate lovers. Though the musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane begins with a cunning Quentin Blake animated film on how our favorite food proceeds from bean to bar, the musical adapted from Roald Dahl's children's story by David Greig with songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is as bad a transformation to the stage as the Tim Minchin-Dennis Kelly treatment of Dahl's Matilda is good. Which means it's very, very bad as contrasted with very, very good.
That's another way of saying that the people responsible for bringing this gargantuan tuner to the public may have thought they could take their own ride on Dahl's coattails, but this time as the coattails pulled away from them, they've been left running desperately after. This isn't to declare that the tons of pounds and dollars poured into it don't have their effect. A friend I ran into on exiting the theater told me his six-year-old son sat through the proceedings with his jaw dropping.
It wasn't difficult to figure out why. The lavish production numbers are heaved at the audience one on the heels of another, especially in the second act. And to make them hotsy-totsy, set and costume designer Mark Thompson, lighting designer Paul Pyant, sound designer Paul Arditti, video and projection designer Jon Driscoll and puppet and illusion designer Jamie Harrison pull out every stop within reach--and that includes huge dancing squirrels.
Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes--whom you think would know better (look what he did with James Bond and Skyfall, look what he did with The Bridge Project, look what he did with you-name-it)--has put up the extravaganza with apparently little care other than to get those six-year-old jaws dropping. Choreographer Peter Darling--whose work is superb here and in Manhattan with the singing-dancing Matilda children--has merely cribbed from himself.
Of course, cribbing from oneself is fair enough, whereas cribbing from, to name three, Phantom of the Opera (an underground boat ride-a-glide), The Sound of Music (a yodeling number; don't ask why) and Lionel Bart's Oliver) is slightly more shameful. But maybe that's what happens when inspiration is lacking and only an impulse to keep things big and loud prevails.
For those who don't know Dahl's dark tale, lovable, impoverished Charlie Bucket (Jack Costello the night I saw it, who alternates with Tom Klenerman, Isaac Rouse and Louis Suc) idolizes chocolatier Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) and longs to win one of the five Golden Tickets wrapped in Wonka's ultra-delicious candy bars. Obtaining it will get him invited into his hero's sanctum and eligible for a mysterious grand prize.
It's no shock when he comes by one, along with four other children who are far more truly revolting than the self-proclaimed revolting children of Matilda. One's obese (I saw Jensen Steele), one's spoiled rotten (I saw Tia Noakes), one chews gum incessantly (I saw Adrianna Bertola) and one watches television (I saw Jay Merman). An equally revolting parent is pushing his or her kid to win Willy Wonka's favor.
Librettist Greig's storytelling, however, is so hapless that he thinks clinging to Dahl's plot is the way to go for the stage. He doesn't seem to grasp that Dahl gets away with things a dramatist can't. For instance, Greig doesn't clarify Willy Wonka's character. What does the man, who's dressed like a circus ringmaster, really think about children, and how is he related to the grizzled old man trailing Charley at the onset of action?
Worse, Greig lets the first act remain a stage wait as the Golden Ticket eludes Charlie--who lives with four twee, bedridden grandparents (Nigel Planer, Roni Page, Billy Boyle, Myra Sands) and two kind but out-of-work parents (Alex Clatworthy, Jack Shaloo). Meanwhile, the four children who get their Golden Ticket earlier are each introduced in obnoxious specialty numbers.
In the second act, with Thompson's sets whirligigging and Driscoll's dizzying projections plastering the walls, good-hearted Charlie and his Grandpa Joe ceaselessly race after Willy Wonka as the revolting parent-child combos do themselves in extravagantly as a result of unappealing character traits like impatience, greed and wrongful senses of entitlement.
And what are Hairspray tunesmiths Shaiman and Wittman contributing to an ostensible money machine that's far more ominous than Willy Wonka's looming monolithic factory? They offer lots of songs in lots of styles--the revolting-children material cuts a wide swath--but nothing memorable. There's definitely a scarcity of anything memorable for Hodge, whose La Cage Aux Folles Albin was brilliant. He's obliged to repeat an anthem called "It Must Be Believed to Be Seen," undoubtedly because someone thinks the upending of the cliché is devilishly clever. It isn't. After the team's disappointing 2011 Catch Me If You Can score, this follow-up doesn't regain much lost ground.
Hardly by the way, the best song in the score is "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 movie and nominated for an Oscar. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote the sweet ditty and surely deserve program credit. Perhaps they get it, although I looked in vain.
Hodge does a nice job crooning the Bricusse-Newley item while he and Charlie float around in what looks like a plastic cabin and is probably intended to be Dahl's Great Glass Elevator, but it's still not sufficient to float his performance above gallant commitment. Little can be said for any of the other cast members trudging through this swamp, except to congratulate them on giving their all to the disappointing project.
Word has it that Dahl, who died in 1990, objected to the first film version because it emphasized Willy Wonka over Charlie, as the title change implies. Following much of Dahl's plot, Mendes et al concentrates on Charlie to little avail, while ringmaster Wonka isn't seen, much less believed, until almost the end of act one.
Does any CatCF element rise above the mundane? A song called "Don't Ya Pinch Me, Charlie" with a promising beginning almost does, but just as it feels about to take off into rapturous Song-and-Danceland, it halts jarringly. Then, thanks be, there's the entrance of the Oompa-Loompas. Actually, they're lowered--actors' heads above puppet bodies--on a rainbow-curved set piece, whereupon they mug and tap dance with winning flare. At last, something with the theatrical flavor of a delectable chocolate bonbon.