A peach that swells to the size of a house. Hunters who grow wings and fly, like the ducks they’ve been shooting. A teacher who flings small children out of the window.
Sounds like delirium? Try Dahl-irium. These fantastic and rather disconcerting scenarios were dreamed up by the whimsical British writer Roald Dahl — and they’re all materializing on East Coast stages this spring.
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.
And in “Matilda,” the brutal teacher Miss Trunchbull — who flings youngsters about like shot puts — receives her just desserts from the title character. Matilda plays a couple of salutary pranks (one involves a parrot) on her own dishonest and boorish parents, too.
The young heroine is “fighting the power, really: That’s what makes it good for drama,” says British playwright Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book for “Matilda: The Musical.” (The Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin penned the score; Matthew Warchus directs). It’s tricky to make Dahl’s ominously antic plot twists seem natural in theater, Kelly says, but if you succeed, the results may strike a chord with audiences. Dahl’s books display “a sort of mistrust of authority,” Kelly says. “If we look at the world we live in today, that makes a lot of sense: Most of our authority figures are letting us down.”
Preserving the rebellious spirit in “Matilda” was always a key goal of the musical’s creators. According to former Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Michael Boyd, Dahl’s widow, Liccy Dahl, “felt protective toward the spirit of mischief and anarchy in the book,” and approached the RSC — a not-for-profit with a track record of staging literature — with the belief that the company would honor that spirit.
It’s a spirit that has potency now, Boyd remarked in an e-mail interview. “Dahl’s work has inspired many creative responses over the years, but perhaps his tales of the deprived underdog, triumphant over nightmarish adversity, do have a particular resonance for this pessimistic post-millennial time of recession,” he said.
Yet, coinciding with the subversive tenor of Dahl’s children’s stories is an emphasis on justice. In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” for instance, Wonka makes the honorable, dirt-poor Charlie Bucket his heir, while assorted over-privileged hellions meet with sugary disaster.
Both “Matilda” and “Charlie” appeal to “the sense of justice — which is very, very strong in children,” observes Mel Kenyon, theater agent for the Dahl estate.
“Dahl understood that children react with passion to injustice,” agrees Wood, pointing out that that dynamic is key to his own adaptation. Seeing hunting for sport as unfair, the spell-casting character in “The Magic Finger” turns the tables on the sportsmen, making them the prey.
When Imagination Stage’s Stanford was scheduling Wood’s “The Magic Finger,” she felt sure that, with “Matilda” on Broadway, people would be “talking about Dahl again.” To capitalize on that excitement, she paired “The Magic Finger” with “James and the Giant Peach,” which Imagination Stage had mounted some years ago.
Kathryn Chase Bryer will direct “The Magic Finger.” Stanford is tackling “James and the Giant Peach,” setting the story on a 1960s film set and scattering allusions to James Bond. That’s apt enough, since Dahl dabbled in espionage; knew Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, and wrote the screenplay for the 1967 movie “You Only Live Twice.”
Planned references to Sean Connery’s 007 notwithstanding, Stanford think there’s an up-to-the-moment feeling in Dahl’s narratives. “I think we’re very much in an existential world” in a story like “James and the Giant Peach,” she says.
It’s a world that demands some stoicism. “However fantastic the stories are, kids sense an honesty about the portraits of the characters that feels really contemporary to them,” she says. “It’s not a sugar-coated lesson.”
It was largely the contemporary quality of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” that attracted Shaiman and Wittman to the upcoming Mendes-directed musical.
“It’s really amazing how up to date it is,” Shaiman says, speaking by phone from London, with Wittman on the line.
“He was kind of a mad prophet in a way, wasn’t he?” Wittman says of Dahl. The pair point out that certain phenomena lampooned in the book — gluttony and obesity; couch potato behavior; one-percenter elitism — are in the public discourse today.
Moreover, Wonka’s factory tour — which Dahl describes as being breathlessly covered by journalists, starting with the golden tickets hidden in candy bars — bears more than a little resemblance to a reality TV show, Shaiman and Wittman note.
“We realized, when we started working, that it also had a Donald Trump’s ‘Apprentice’ quality: This insane man with crazy hair forcing these people to compete with each other,” Shaiman says.
“Someone comes out the victor,” Wittman chips in.
But the duo say they’re careful not to give their songs too much topicality. After all, as all the thespians interviewed about the current projects emphasize, Dahl’s kooky landscapes are evergreen.
“We still try to keep it kind of timeless,” Shaiman says.
April 6–May 26. At Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.
April 13-May 19. At Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.
Previews start May 17; opens June 26; at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. Visit www. charlieandthechocolatefactory.com.