Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Cast Album Review
Though critics didn’t exactly fall all over themselves with love and adoration for the confection that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with or without their approval, the musical already has many things going for it that are bound to lure in crowds. It has a family-friendly, magical story by Roald Dahl that takes audiences (particularly children) on a wondrous journey into the world of candy. It mines the best of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley songs from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, while calling on the usually dependable composing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can) to write additional songs to fill the score. It also stars one of Broadway’s finest character actors, Christian Borle, in the role of candy-maker extraordinaire, Mr. Willy Wonka. Even anticipating the worst (or taking the critics’ assessments as gospel), this show was always going to have something going for it.
Masterworks Broadway has just released the cast album of the Broadway production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and though it does nothing to counter any of the critics’ claims, it is nonetheless a pleasant album with dashes of charm and certainly some fun performances captured (particularly Borle, who was born to play the idiosyncratic Wonka). The new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are not particularly the duo’s best work. I was humming Hairpray when I walked out of the theatre, but there is something rote and perfunctory about their contributions here that never catch fire. The new songs do little to move the story along or reveal much by way of character development.
The songs written for the title character feel vocally uncomfortable (they would sound jarring sung by any adolescent male voice). Jake Ryan Flynn (as Charlie) does the best that he can with what he is given (the kid has verve and voice to spare), but why not give Charlie a melody that paints him as the earnest and kindly kid that he is? His music (“Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka!”, in particular) makes him sound as obnoxious as the other kids who are systematically eliminated from the story for their bratty precociousness. He should have a voice that is in contrast to the other children, symbolically foreshadowing that he will be the “chosen one.”
Those who know the film starring Gene Wilder as Wonka, realize and remember that there are two iconic, magical numbers that standout and their memories do not fade easily. Fair or not, it is inevitable that “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination” will be compared to their film counterparts. Neither erases (or is at a comparable standard) of its predecessor, and their tempos (particularly in “The Candy Man”) feel sluggish and orchestrations uninspired. It feels as if they are purposely understated in-order to draw attention away from their celebrity status.
Christian Borle is a game Willy Wonka, and that DOES resonate on the album (Borle’s performance is the chief reason for wanting to own this cast recording). Even when the arrangements and orchestrations fail him, he still manages to infuse what he is doing with quixotic touches that remind us that Wonka is both whimsical AND dangerous. He is at his most enthralling in “It Must Be Believed to Be Seen”, the musical’s most mysterious (and dramatic) number.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not exactly the “Golden Ticket” of cast albums. In fact, something tastes just a little bitter in the sweet shop. Is it that off-putting aftertaste that comes when you don’t mix the ingredients quite right for the perfect confection, or perhaps you let the sugar heat for just a little too long and it slightly burns. It’s not awful, but not exactly what it should be either. I wanted to love the cast album of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and instead I found it pleasant without it being perfect.