Starting April 6, Bethesda’s Imagination Stage will present a Dahl repertory bill, consisting of a play based on the classic “James and the Giant Peach” and a world premiere adaptation of “The Magic Finger,” about a girl whose anti-hunting passion mysteriously transforms hunters into human-duck hybrids.
Now running on Broadway is “Matilda the Musical,” adapted from Dahl’s tale of a tiny girl whose magical powers vanquish an ogre-like teacher. The musical won a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards after transferring in 2011 to London’s West End, where it still pulls in crowds.
And London will soon see the launch of a new musical based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the tale of the eccentric confectionery baron Willy Wonka and his outlandish creations (three-course-dinner chewing gum, hair toffee, etc.). Boasting music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman (the songwriting pair known for “Hairspray” and NBC’s “Smash”), and directed by Sam Mendes (“Skyfall”), the show begins previews on May 17.
Staged versions of Dahl’s children’s yarns are not new, of course: U.K.-based playwright David Wood, who authored both Imagination Stage repertory pieces, has dramatized eight Dahl books to date. Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald handled the adaptation for “Willy Wonka,” a musical incorporating songs (by Bricusse and Anthony Newley) from the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; the stage musical premiered in 2004 at the Kennedy Center and has been widely produced elsewhere.
But, there seems to be an uptick in the theatrical wattage surging into Dahl projects of late. “The longer Roald Dahl is dead, the more popular his work becomes,” says Janet Stanford, Imagination Stage’s artistic director.
After an eventful life (he was gravely injured as a fighter pilot during World War II, and subsequently worked as a diplomat and intelligence agent, based for a while in Washington, D.C.), Dahl died in 1990 at age 74.Children who grew up reading his books now have families of their own — and may have money to spend on theater. It would hardly be surprising if, as Stanford suspects, the theater establishment sees Dahl’s body of work as a potential source for “another ‘Lion King.’ ”
“His material is so sophisticated on many levels,” she says.
That sophistication includes a streak of subversiveness — even darkness. Grotesque and villainous authority figures meet with spectacular comeuppances in Dahl’s children’s books (even if the books are lighter than Dahl’s famously disturbing stories for adults). In “James and the Giant Peach,” the young hero’s abusive guardians, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, are squashed flat by the eponymous fruit. In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” overindulgent parents watch, aghast, as their spoiled children encounter freakishly appropriate fates: overeater Augustus Gloop nearly drowns in liquid chocolate; rich brat Veruca Salt plunges down a garbage chute; boob-tube addict Mike Teavee is shrunk by a camera.