London’s Grand Theatre is a crown jewel in the non-Toronto Ontario theatre scene. The historic Spriet Stage is a gorgeous venue that hosts an ambitious and well-balanced season of crowd pleasers while the company’s secondary space, the versatile Auburn Stage, allows the company some much-needed creativity with slightly more daring programming. The Grand has an excellent track record for attracting top-tier talent and their technical execution is always top-notch. A rare company that balances not-for-profit artistic integrity with the polish and spectacle of commercial theatre, The Grand is an unmissable stop on any Ontario Theatre Tour and a credit to its community.


Their current mainstage production is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a deeply flawed musical adaptation of an over-told tale that’s been reinterpreted by director Jan Alexandra Smith with game-changing perversity, wild abandon, and more than one star turn.


Let’s start with the bad news, because the musical certainly does. Most of the dramaturgical problems lie in the dull first act which spends all its time getting to the chocolate factory while saving all the good stuff for post-intermission. Act one is saccharine and slow, Wonka-less, and weighed down by dreadful songs highlighting the non-Charlie golden ticket winners, most of whom have received uninteresting modern updates and all of whom are exhausting. David Greig’s book is brutal and Marc Shaiman’s original songs aren’t much better (the songs lifted from the film adaptation by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are much-needed bright spots). There is very little any director can do with the action of act one beyond keep the pacing up and hope it’s over soon. Luckily, The Grand had the good fortune of finding an inspired Mrs. Bucket in Melissa Mackenzie and her incredible warmth and beautiful soprano give the audience something to hold on to until Wonka arrives.


And arrive he does, in great splendor, armed with Mark Uhre’s velvety voice and trademark intensity. He’s a counter-intuitive and inspired Wonka, funny but not known for comedy, last seen wielding a knife in a Donnelly Trilogy bar brawl. Uhre plays Wonka like a maniacal Billy Eichner who’s had too much sugar, lording over a zany nightmare-scape of a chocolate factory with glee and trust issues. Under Smith’s refreshingly anarchic direction, act two is light on songs but packed with pitch-black comedy and unforgettable moments. Diabolical knife-wielding double-stacked Oompa Loompas literally tear the bad kids apart, kicking blueberrified Violet around like a beach ball. It’s incredibly rare to see a big budget musical adapted with any sort of directorial bravery, especially when dealing with beloved IP, but Smith attacks this horribly written musical with killer intensity and in doing so manages to make a real mark on well-trodden territory.


Currently, the Grand does not appear to offer any rush, arts worker, or youth discounts on tickets (which start at $42 for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and go as high as $98). I’d love to see that change as they continue to present, produce, and develop work that deserves to be seen by as much of the London community as possible.