Review: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ asks audiences to believe in the unbelievable

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Courtesy photo

Here’s a mystery from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the touring Broadway musical on stage at the Walton Arts Center through Dec. 5: Is Cody Garcia, the actor who deftly played eccentric candymaker Willy Wonka, almost 7 feet tall? Or were the actors he shared the stage with kept short via casting choices? Watching Wonka tower above the participants in his madcap march through the titular factory, I couldn’t help but wonder.

As for the other mysteries from the beloved children’s tale, they are still there – and there are additional ones posed by the new production, which was written by David Greig (book), Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Whitman (lyrics). It debuted on London’s West End in 2013 and was directed there by Sam Mendes, famous in the U.S. for his direction of movies such as “American Beauty” and two of the films in the Bond franchise. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” transferred to Broadway in 2017.

It’s an adaption of the beloved children’s novel by Roald Dahl. That book spawned two full-scale movie versions, one in 1971 featuring Gene Wilder as Wonka and one in 2005 with Johnny Depp as the candyman. Between these four versions, there are many divergences, and I suspect anyone wanting a scene-for-scene retelling of their favorite version may be disappointed. The book, the movies and this musical are all separate things.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 1; 1:30 and 7 p.m. Dec. 2; 8 p.m. Dec. 3; 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 4 ; 2 p.m. Dec. 5
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or
Note: All attendees most provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or provide a negative test. Details can be found on the venue’s COVID policies page.

About this one, then – Charlie Bucket is indeed the downtrodden but kind boy who helps take care of his family in a vague town with the defining feature of being the home to the Wonka candy factory. No one goes in or out of the factory, but Wonka candy shows up in stores. The candy causes Wonkamania when it is announced that the reclusive candymaker has placed five golden tickets inside random chocolate bars. A frantic search for the tickets – which will allow passage into the factory – begins.

The tickets are claimed by children with dominate, archetypical vices. Augustus Gloop is a glutton, for instance, and the ever-spoiled Veruca Salt gets what she wants from her father as soon as she asks for it. The final ticket is found in an impulse purchase by Charlie, after a chocolate bar received as a birthday present failed to provide him a chance. The other two ticket claimants were updated from previous versions for more modern audiences. Violet Beauregarde is now an Instagram starlet who encourages her father to “go live” at any worthy occasion. And Mike Teavee has evolved from a television junkie to a gamer/computer hacker who must be restrained to a chair by his mother in the evenings because of a court order. It’s a strange choice when generic “gamer” would have sufficed.

The first act follows the journey of the children as the tickets are found and the gates of the factory open for the first time in years. The second act shows us how the children’s base impulses lead to their demise as they visit a factory full of temptations.

Each of the versions of “Charlie” are dark, weird and wild. The musical adaptation is certainly all of those three. The first half, like many musicals, is slower while characters are established and the plot is introduced. After the intermission is where more of the magic happens. True to form for Broadway musicals, it contains a second-act dance sequence, this one cleverly titled “Veruca’s Nutcracker Sweet” and featuring a ballet between Veruca and nut-sorting squirrels. Even though I knew what was coming after consuming previous versions of this story, I was surprised by the dance’s finale.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Courtesy photo

There’s a bit of onstage magic for the dismissal of each golden ticket holder. And each character got their own original song for their dismissal scene. While featuring several of the treasured songs from previous productions – such as “The Candy Man,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “Pure Imagination” – most of the songs are unique to this production. Garcia’s care with “Pure Imagination” was a highlight of the show; “Vidiots,” which coincides with Mike Teavee’s demise, was not.

The show tries to appeal to a range of audiences. There are jokes meant for younger audiences, although there weren’t many children present during the opening-night performance on Tuesday (Nov. 30). There is also some innuendo meant for a more youthful audience’s parents. And of course there are elements meant for everyone, such as the dancing Oompa Loompas, which were activated by onstage puppeteers. The Oompa Loompas were equal parts visually interesting and well-executed. The choreography of the show was excellent all night, in fact.

It’s also a stage show with strong acting. I thought Garcia did a fine job in a difficult role. The Charlie Bucket role is split between three young actors. The Tuesday night actor for Charlie’s role, Jackson Greenspan, was quite enthusiastic throughout the show and always hit his marks.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Courtesy photo

Despite some onstage magic, some strong acting and interesting visuals, I was left wishing the show solved some of its self-created mysteries. Why would Mike Teavee be allowed in the factory if he had hacked into Wonka’s computer system to secure his ticket? What happened to Charlie’s dad? Mrs. Bucket sings about him, and there’s a nice dance sequence with a specter of Mr. Bucket, but we’re left wondering. And, perhaps most specifically, I’m curious if Wonka planned to declare Charlie the winner the whole time, a possibility other versions don’t really explore.

But we know musical theater asks us to suspend belief. So does Roald Dahl. And so does Willy Wonka. And other than believing that Grandpa Joe can go from bed-ridden for decades to walking around a factory all day in less than 24 hours, you might find yourself believing in the power of the candy man.