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