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‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ review: Saccharine overload

Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, center, works hard

Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, center, works hard to find the charm in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

WHERE Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.

INFO $79-$169; 877-250-2929; charlieonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE The candy man can’t.

For a musical about the wonder of pure imagination, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is bizarrely lacking in it.

The show does have Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, the mysterious chocolate-making genius created by Roald Dahl in 1964, then indelibly embodied by Gene Wilder in the 1971 movie and (a bit less indelibly) Johnny Depp on screen in 2005. Alas, especially in the long and slow first act, it’s almost painful to watch Borle, a master of endearing virtuosity, work so hard to sell charm that simply isn’t in the script, the music and too much of the staging.

To add to the dismay and surprise, the creative team would seem to be a sure thing. This is, after all, the multi-award winning gang behind “Hairspray” — composer/co-lyricist Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman and director Jack O’Brien. True, O’Brien, choreographer Joshua Bergasse and the entire cast have been changed since the London production, which received mixed reviews but ran 3 1⁄2 years. But such producing enterprise should have been a good thing, right?

But the best songs, except for a clever patter number for Wonka, are old ones from the movie. And Mark Thompson’s sets, except for factory scenes with the puppet/human Oompa Loompas — are oddly barren.

This is, of course, the story of the aged Wonka, lonely and looking for an heir, who runs a contest to test the potential of five unknowing youngsters. Then terrible things happen to awful children and their parents from far-flung cultures and their guardians in the name of candy.

At the center is the very good boy, Charlie Bucket (Ryan Foust at the performance I saw), a Wonka chocolate expert who lives in poverty with his widowed mother (Emily Padgett, required to be unbelievably nice) and his four grandparents, who never leave their bed in the loft of their home made of garbage. His favorite is Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein) who regains use of his legs to take the journey with Charlie.

Until Wonka takes the story’s five young hopefuls on a second-act tour of his magical and perilous chocolate factory, however, the show is saccharine and soporific. David Greig’s book feels forced, and the intentionally nasty bits about fat Bavarian children, Russian megalomaniacs, etc., feel more gratuitous than satirical.

Borle pulls out every comic bit anyone has ever known, including a Groucho imitation, and when Wonka sings “so much time, so little to do,” we know what he means.

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