Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Cody Garcia as Willy Wonka and cast. All photos by Jeremy Daniel.

Most of us have confronted situations that are discomforting because we’re not sure that we’re in a place where we belong.  Maybe we’re improperly dressed, or we expect to have little in common with the crowd assembled.  Well, what about attending a musical based on a children’s novel without having kids in tow?  When it comes to “Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” never fear.  At its San Jose opening, very few youngsters could be seen in the orchestra.  So, any adult can relax and let the inner child enjoy an exhilarating musical that works on many levels and transcends the age divide.

Charlie Bucket is a child from poverty with hopes and dreams (one might say, a Bucket List!).  A lover of chocolate, he is budgeted only one bar of his favored Willy Wonka chocolate per year.  When Willy Wonka offers a contest in which five recipients of “golden tickets” hidden in chocolate bar wrappers will receive a free tour of the chocolate factory, Charlie is all in.  And (of course), he receives one of the prizes and gets to see the magic behind the scenes.

William Goldsman as Charlie Bucket.

Casting makes all the difference, especially in the lead roles.  A charismatic Cody Garcia leaves an indelible mark as Willy Wonka, both acting and singing.  He is a worthy challenger to more famous film portrayers, Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp.  Self-absorbed and self-interested, Wonka totally lacks empathy.  As Wonka, Garcia delightfully and imperiously crushes the aspirations of any and all.  When others suffer tragedies, he sees only the disruptions to his life.

But are there seeds for redemption?  What about his signature song “The Candy Man (Can)” in which he “makes the world taste good….and mixes it with love?”  Or the inspiration “Want to change the world, There’s nothing to it,” he offers in “Pure Imagination?”  Curmudgeon or motivator?  To counterbalance Wonka, a waifish boy to portray Charlie is de rigueur, and William Goldsman, one of the alternates in the role, provides the goods as a loving son and dedicated lover of chocolate.

This touring musical brings all of the glitzy production values of Broadway.  Staging, which combines extensive back-lit projection along with movable scenery, is bright, colorful and appealing, especially the brilliant landscape diorama made entirely from candy.  The play is highly episodic with different musical twists in the introductions of each winner of the free tour.  Lyrics are clever, funny, and revealing.  The German, polka-inspired “More of Him to Love” for the pot-bellied boy from Bavaria who wears a string of sausages around his neck is particularly distinctive.  That vignette, and others like the one about the unruly Iowa boy whose dipsomaniac mother controls him with physical restraints, are also reflective of Dahl’s dark edges.  Surprisingly mature themes and streaks of cruelty run through much of his children’s literature, but those attributes probably induce adults to like his work.


Perhaps the most memorable feature of the play is the Oompa-Loompas, who help run the factory and who sing and dance at each contestant’s calamity.  As the story specifies that they are little people, various productions use different solutions.  This show’s answer is a technique that was made famous by the Fred Astaire-led “triplets” in the movie “The Bandwagon.”  Several orange-wigged, black-clad puppeteers hide their bodies behind small, white-dressed, full-body marionettes attached to their heads, with the actors’ faces exposed.  They sing and crack jokes as they manipulate the puppets by hand.  The effects, with puppets dancing and gesticulating wildly, are hilarious.

For a fun evening at the theater, this is the ticket.

“Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” with book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, with added songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, and based on the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, is produced by Broadway San Jose and plays at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden, San Jose, CA through January 23, 2022.

The Band’s Visit

Janet Dacal, Sasson Gabay. All photos by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

How do you set expectations for the touring production of a Broadway musical?  Case in point – what about “The Band’s Visit”?  Did it get great reviews?  Check.  Did it have a long run on Broadway?  Check.  Was it well recognized by the industry, as in one of the most decorated musicals in Broadway history with 11 Tony nominations and 10 wins?  Check.  Is most of its artistry transferrable to other stages, like its recognition for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Director, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design, and Best Sound Design?  Check.  So, what is needed to ensure success on the road is a fine cast and professional execution.  Check.  To conclude, be prepared for a crowd-pleasing escape to a far away world full of issues that are close to home.

The unlikely setting is a desolate town in the Negev Desert of Israel in 1996, aptly characterized by one of the play’s songs, “Welcome to Nowhere.”  The incident that triggers the action is that the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to perform at an Arab Culture Center in Israel.  Arriving at the Tel Aviv bus station, the band’s expected reception party fails to show.

Company members

Tewfiq, the enterprising conductor of the band, decides that they will catch a bus to their final destination, but because of a minor communication problem, they end up in Bet Hatikva, not the intended Petah Tikva.  After realizing their misdirection, they learn that the next bus back to Tel Aviv is the following day.  Landing at the café of lively and lovely divorcée, Dina, she arranges overnight housing for the stranded musicians.  In the meantime, the evening fills with sweetness and sadness as various groups of hosts and visitors get to know one another.

As a classic cross-cultural collision, several clashing dimensions of difference could be exploited in the plot line – political (Israeli vs. Egyptian), religious (Jewish vs. Muslim), sociological (urban vs. rural), or even artistic (musicians vs. not), but the creators largely avoided the obvious and focused more on the shared challenges that people of all ilks face.  In that sense, the story is revealed on a small canvas of personal matters rather than a large canvas of great issues of the day.  But in wisely avoiding most clichés, one that might have resonated well with the audience is a real l’chaim moment, which it lacks. 

Along with incidents of no great importance, arguments occur, mostly among the Israelis who have deeper history with one another.  Yet, the overall tone is sympathetic and graced with gentle humor that flows largely from waggish and well-timed delivery rather than from jokes.  Hosts and visitors explore backgrounds and find that they experience the same human emotions of longing, love, failure, and loss.  As an element of shared history with the visitors, Dina even waxes nostalgically in the song “Omar Sharif” about growing up with a love for Egyptian movies she watched on television.

Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra.

Apart from serious pain that characters have suffered, some idiosyncratic failures are explored in great fun.  A young Israeli man waits at a sidewalk telephone night and day hoping to hear from the girlfriend who left him a month before, blocking others from using the phone.  Separately, the hosts find that the Egyptian clarinetist is working on a symphony and encourage him to perform for them.  Playing what he has written so far, it turns out that in 20 years his output is less than a minute of the overture.

Janet Dacal portrays Dina with a fine mix of verve and ennui – disappointed that fate has not swept her from her bleak surroundings, yet ready to take advantage when opportunity presents itself.  Sasson Gabay reprises his well-suited role as the more reserved Tewfiq, but from the original movie, not from the New York staging.

The biggest star is the music.  Lyrics in the sung songs are witty and divulging, and the accompanying music is pleasant throughout, with eclectic influences from American pop to klezmer to bossanova.  Some of the stylings are a little rough, which at first may suggest poor casting, but on further consideration, less than perfect renditions work well.  After all, the characters represented are not singers, they are working class.

Joshua Grosso.

What is most distinctive, however, is how the Arabic-themed instrumental music played by the several band members is integrated into the action.  There is enough of it that it remains exotic and leaves you wanting more.  The musicianship is phenomenal especially the violinist in his solos, and the musicians playing the Arabian instruments, the oud, a gourd-back lute, and the darbouka, a smallish hourglass-shaped, finger-flicked drum.

The production transports the creative elements of the Broadway show, and they work well.  Staging is spare and reflects the humble nature of the town.  Unlike some other musicals, the staging does not upstage the show.  A correctible weakness is that on opening night, the sound delivery was uneven, and many lines were not sufficiently audible.  But overall, “The Band’s Visit” is a rewarding experience and a welcomed diversion from Covid.

“The Band’s Visit,” with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses adapted from the screenplay of the same title by Eran Kolirin, appears at Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA through February 6, 2022.