A man with dark hair and glasses, wearing a vest and a white apron, stands left with his arms folded in front of a candy counter. A young girl in a plaid skirt, jacket, and knit hat stands right. She is holding a chocolate bar over her head triumphantly.
Stephen Schellhardt (left) and Meena Sood in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Paramount Theatre Credit: Liz Lauren

Whether you’re waiting anxiously to see Timothée Chalamet in Wonka (the musical prequel to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or are rolling your eyes in anticipatory disgust (look, after the 2005 Johnny Depp cinematic debacle, I don’t blame you for being anxious!), Paramount Theatre’s current staging of the 2013 musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory should hit the sweet spot. Provided you don’t mind a bit of bitterness with your confectionery, that is.

Trent Stork’s staging bursts with fine performances, most notably Stephen Schellhardt as Willy Wonka and young Meena Sood as Charlie Bucket. Sood alternates in the role with Charlie Long; the pronouns in the lyrics and lines at the performance I saw were changed to clearly depict Sood’s Charlie as a girl, which is just one refreshing update in this show.

In tone, it definitely hews closer to 1971’s beloved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which starred Gene Wilder as Wonka and featured insta-hit songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Some of those songs (“The Candy Man,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” “Pure Imagination,” and “The Oompa Loompa Song”) appear here. The rest are by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), with a book adapted from Dahl’s original by David Greig. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Through 1/14/24: Wed 1:30 and 7 PM, Thu 7 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 1 and 5:30 PM; also Fri 12/22 3 PM and Thu 12/28 1:30 PM; no shows Sun 12/24; open captions Wed 1/3/24 1:30 PM, ASL interpretation Fri 1/5/24 8 PM; Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, 630-896-6666, paramountaurora.com, $38-$79

Schellhardt’s first official entrance as Willy Wonka echoes Wilder’s in the film—walking in stiffly with a cane and then executing an exuberant somersault. (Reportedly that move was Wilder’s own invention, and he insisted upon it being included as a condition of doing the role. His reasoning? “From that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”) 

But this version works in an earlier deception on Wonka’s part: he also goes undercover as the candy shop owner (played by Aubrey Woods in the film). And in Greig’s book, it’s young Charlie Bucket who gives Wonka the initial idea for the “golden ticket” promotion. During the tour, Charlie also comes up with a name for glowing lollipops (“liquid sunshine”) that Schellhardt’s Wonka quietly tells his workers to start using—without any hint of recompense for the kid. As the shopkeeper, he doesn’t even pony up a single complimentary chocolate bar for the child who clearly wants to have a chance at the golden ticket more than anything else. So any misguided notions of Wonka as a sort of fairy godfather (which, honestly, anyone who has read Dahl should know better than to expect) are handily dispelled here.

In another departure from the film, neither Charlie nor his cantankerous but loving Grandpa Joe (played to perfection by Gene Weygandt) samples the Fizzy Lifting Drink or tries to steal an Everlasting Gobstopper. There’s no Slugworth, Wonka’s rival candymaker in the film, offering a reward for the latter in this musical.

It’s rather puzzling that Charlie, who is portrayed as a perceptive and sensitive kid, doesn’t make the connection between the shopkeeper and Wonka. But that may be part of the overriding theme of the power of imagination woven unabashedly throughout the story. We see what we want to see. So we need to be very careful that the things we want to see (and indeed, the things we want, period) aren’t leading us into a dark place.

The other children here are mostly given contemporary glosses (except for David Blakeman’s Augustus Gloop, who remains a gluttonous live-action version of a Hummel figurine). Veruca Salt (Devon Hayakawa) is the daughter of a Russian oligarch. Violet Beauregarde (Tiffany T. Taylor) is a wannabe social media influencer. And Mike Teevee (August Forman) is a feral child who seems destined to be a future Gamergatelike toxic male. 

Among the supporting roles, Jaye Ladymore delivers a poignant turn as stoic Mrs. Bucket, and her first-act ballad for Charlie, “If Your Father Were Here,” is one of the most moving moments in a show that knows how to weave the sentimental in with the sardonic. (Oddly, it also reminded me of Ma Otter in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, which also features a poor widow and her good-hearted kid.) By contrast, Heidi Kettenring’s Mrs. Teevee could give Amy Poehler’s “fun mom” from Mean Girls a run for her vodka-soaked money, and Lorenzo Rush Jr.’s Mr. Beauregarde is a pushy stage dad, bent on using his kid for his own self-promotion.

Each of the kids and their accompanying guardian get a showy number that actually does work well at quickly establishing their characters’ motivations. The choreography by Kasey Alfonso is acrobatic and inventive, and the orchestra under music director Kory Danielson’s baton sounds bright and vibrant.

Visually, the show is also a treat, as it must be in order to work, with Charlie’s Dickensian hovel standing in sharp contrast to the bright colors of the candy shop on the flip side of the Bucket home. Wonka’s factory looks like what might happen if Barbie went steampunk, which is pretty spot-on. Jeffrey D. Kmiec designed the flexible and eye-catching scenery, illuminated by Greg Hofmann’s lights, which go from sickly chiaroscuro for the Bucket scenes to sensory overload for some of the factory shenanigans. Kudos also to Paul Deziel’s swirling projections, which occasionally made me feel like I was inside a particularly wacky planetarium. Kids and adults alike might enjoy spying the clever candy-themed props (designed by Jesse Gaffney) like the lollipop oars that pop up in one sequence. And the costumes by Ryan Park are also (forgive me) total eye candy. (Also, keep an eye out for the giant rolling blueberry version of Violet.)

In the end, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory succeeds onstage because it delivers a familiar story with its own contemporary flourishes. Schellhardt’s Wonka remains delightfully enigmatic, just as Wilder’s earlier incarnation did. (I repeat: Wonka was never meant to be a warm and fuzzy character, and if you go in with that expectation, you’ll be disappointed here.) Yet it’s clear that the connection between him and Charlie begins with a nourishing love of innovation and imagination for its own sake, rather than the empty calories of media saturation. (Nick Druzbanski and Allison Sill pop up in video interludes as two entertainment news anchors, breathlessly delivering updates on the golden tickets, as a reminder of the vacuity of our celebrity-driven news cycle.) 

Wonka isn’t above exploitation, as his small thefts from Charlie’s ideas demonstrate. (The show definitely doesn’t go into detail about the Oompa Loompas and just how they got to the factory and what they receive in recompense.) But like a lot of charismatic showmen, he knows how to inspire people to reach beyond their own ideas about themselves, even if he’s the imperfect vessel for delivering that message. 

In the case of Charlie, Wonka’s lucky enough to find a bearer of a golden ticket who also has a heart of gold. Maybe, just maybe, the combination of Wonka’s inspiration and Charlie’s compassion will provide a delicious roadmap for the future.