Charlie and The Chocolate Factory: Sydney’s sweetest new show

As if Sydney wasn’t sweet enough, its “Christmas elves” went and filled it with sugar and spice and all things pre-diabetic for the festive season.

The Land of Sweets, a partnership between eatery The Grounds Alexandria and Disney, transformed kitchen gardens and laneways into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms complete with sugar-themed treats. Flowers Pink Pavlova, anyone? Maybe a Sugar Plum Soda?

At the Shangri-La Hotel, pastry chef Anna Polyviou crafted for its lobby a four-metre gingerbread train with 1000 kilos of gingerbread bricks, 500 lollies, 100 kilos of fondant, giant lollipops and candy canes.

Just reading about it is enough to bring on a sugar rush, but the sweetest treat may be still to come. Sydney won the golden ticket to become the Australian city to premiere downunder the next “blockbuster musical” – the Broadway version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Willy Wonka’s famed and fantastical chocolate factory opens its doors at the city’s Capitol Theatre in January with the story following – more or less – Roald Dahl’s 1964 book about a good-hearted but poor boy who, by being humble, kind and creative, wins a place on a life-changing journey through his town’s most mysterious factory staffed by the orange-skinned Oompa-Loompas and ruled over by enigmatic Willy Wonka.

David Greig wrote the stage version while Grammy and Tony-winning songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman penned the music and three-time Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien directs. The production includes additional songs from the 1971 movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which propelled Gene Wilder to fame and, eventually, became a classic dubbed worthy of preservation by the United States National Film Registry because of its cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.

It’s the latest Dahl story adapted for the stage, following the phenomenal success of Matilda which was largely due to songs and music by Australian Tim Minchin. However, despite the pedigree of its story and star power of its creators, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory arrives in Sydney having left a bitterer taste in the mouths of some US critics.

Even so, it ran for nine months at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre following a nearly four year run in London’s West End. For Sydney, it’s been re-cast which American actor Paul Slade-Smith playing Willy Wonka, a decision that didn’t go down well with Australian acting unions, four young boys sharing the role of Charlie Bucket, Tony Sheldon as his grandfather and Lucy Maunder, seen in New Zealand playing Miss Honey in Matilda, as Charlie’s mum.

Oddly, adults – albeit youthful looking ones – play the badly-behaved, and ultimately doomed, “kids” who accompany Charlie on the tour of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Naturally, its Australian producers are talking it up describing it as a “deliciously dark children’s classical”.

Craig Donnell, an executive with mega-entertainment producing company Gordon Frost Organisation, told the Sydney Morning Herald a musical which ran in London for as long as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory did was clearly worthy of attention. He pointed out that a number of shows, notably Wicked, hadn’t received the best reviews when they first opened.

“It’s a big $10 million blockbuster production. It has magic, it has Oompa Loompas, it has some of the best costumes you are ever going to see… The special effects, well, let’s just say the technical wizardry involved in getting Violet Beauregard to blow up like a balloon or to send Mike Teavee through the air or the glass elevator to rise up are quite phenomenal.”

Like many, Donnell recalls being spellbound when he saw the original film.

“It was suitably edgy, suitably funny and it delivered on so many levels.”

Musical theatre might as well be in the blood of Auckland born and raised Donnell, 49. He grew up at his parents’, Ken and Doreen, theatre school Auckland City Theatre Academy and performed, from early childhood, at venues like the PumpHouse in Takapuna.

In the early 1990s, he flew to Australia to audition for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – the first of several musicals Donnell appeared in and toured with. But he always had his eye on producing, saying he started with small shows and events which grew and grew.

“Would I ever walk away from this business? I’ve had that thought at times, usually when we’re racing against a deadline but I think it would be – would have been – a very dully life for me,” he says. “I even enjoy sitting in an empty theatre and absorbing the atmosphere.”

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