Chaplin Review: The Little Tramp on Broadway
Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin walks a tightrope, plays the violin, roller skates with a blindfold on, does backflips into a handstand, and — most dexterous of all — carries “Chaplin: The Musical” on his twitchy shoulders.
This is apt: Chaplin himself was the world’s first movie star, a performer whom people sought out no matter what the vehicle he was appearing in. He performed in 82 films, all but five of which were silent, all but one in black and white. Like Chaplin himself, McClure is most successful when he transforms before our eyes into The Little Tramp, a character Chaplin introduced to the world in the 1914 film “Kid Auto Races at Venice, and retired after “The Great Dictator” in 1940.
The musical in which McClure as Chaplin is appearing at the Ethel Barrymore somewhat resembles Richard Attenborough’s earnest, straightforwardly chronological 1993 film “Chaplin,” starring Richard Downey, Jr. — certainly more than it does any movie Charlie Chaplin ever made. In the beginning, we see Chaplin as a child (played by the impressive and diminutive Zachary Unger), the son of London music hall performer Hannah (Christiane Noll) who has a mental breakdown (and who haunts and inspires Charlie in flashbacks throughout the show.) At the end, we see Chaplin as an old man triumphantly returning to the United States after decades of exile to accept an honorary Academy Award. In-between is a kind of highlights reel: Part of the production’s conceit is that we are in fact seeing a movie of Chaplin’s life. This means little more than every now and then, somebody comes out with one of those movie slates and announces “Chaplin, scene 5.” The costumes, by Amy Clark and the late, great Martin Pakledinaz are also all in black and white and shades of grey, and the performers wear the kind of make-up common to the silent movie era – bright white or grey. The stagecraft and choreography of “Chaplin” seem inspired by better shows, from “City of Angels” to “Cabaret” to “All That Jazz.”
Christopher Curtis has been working on this musical for more than a decade, and it has been renamed several times. The public first saw a version of the show at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006, and it was at LaJolla Playhouse in 2010. That it has now made it to Broadway is reportedly thanks to two first-time theater investors, billionaires who are regular customers at Chez Josephine, the restaurant where Curtis worked as a pianist
Curtis has partnered with more experienced collaborators, book writer Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and director-choreographer Warren Carlyle (Finian’s Rainbow), who has assembled a first-rate cast. Despite the time, talent and experience that went into the making of “Chaplin,” there are some startling stumbles, cringe-worthy missteps. But there are several smart choices as well – the smartest being the casting of Rob McClure.
“Before Chaplin came to pictures people were content with a couple of gags per comedy; he got some kind of laugh every second,” the film critic James Agee wrote long ago. Audiences at “Chaplin” will have to be content with far fewer laughs. That doesn’t seem to be what its creative team was aiming at, and this, surprisingly, is not fatal. There is enough in his biography that is riveting without being the least funny: His unlikely life, from rags to riches, adoration to political exile to late-life vindication, included sexual scandal, four marriages and 11 children – eight of them with his last wife, Oona O’Neill, the playwright Eugene O’Neill’s daughter (played by Erin Mackey), whom Chaplin married when she was 17 and he 54, a marriage that unexpectedly lasted until his death more than three decades later.
Unfortunately, the focus on his personal life includes an over-reliance in the second act on gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jen Colella), who is depicted as the villain, setting out to destroy Chaplin because he won’t agree to an interview with her. The nadir is a scene of a boxing match, MC-ed by Hopper, between Chaplin and each of his first three wives (including Paulette Godard), in which they knock him out and get rewarded with a big bag of cash. Hopper is also shown as the force behind his being hounded out of the United States because of his leftist beliefs.
The score also only intermittently scores. Christopher Curtis’s music is mostly unmemorable, and his lyrics unadventurous. This is a shame and somewhat ironic: Chaplin himself wrote some 500 melodies; the only competitive Oscar he ever won was for composing the score of “Limelight.” Michael Jackson used to say that his favorite song of all time was Chaplin’s “Smile.” But if not stellar, Curtis’s jaunty jazz, ragtime, music hall, and Broadway ballads are serviceable, setting the proper mood, much in the way that the music does in a silent movie.
What works best in “Chaplin” are the re-creations of several of Chaplin’s most famous scenes, from Modern Times, City Lights, The Great Dictator, and an extended scene of the filming of “The Kid” – the origins of the story (supposedly Chaplin’s own childhood) and how he got child actor Jackie Coogan (again played by Unger) to cry. In another scene, Charlie demonstrates to his brother Syd (Wayne Alan Wilcox), recently arrived from London, the magic of the movies. He shows a scene of the Little Tramp dropping bricks off the ledge of a building. Then he shows the clip in reverse and speeded up – as it actually appears in the film “Payday.”
To my taste, there are not enough of these scenes. Where, I thought, is the scene from “The Gold Rush” of his eating his shoe? How come the scene they re-create from “The Great Dictator” isn’t the one of him dancing with the huge globe of the world?
And that is one of the dilemmas of any show named Chaplin: How can you avoid disappointing an audience whose familiarity with Chaplin, and thus their expectations, are bound to be high? How do you select from his long, full life what to put on the stage? How do you do justice to his artistry?
Chaplin: The Musical
At the Ethel Barrymore Theater,
Book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan; music and lyrics by Mr. Curtis; directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle; sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Scott Lehrer and Drew Levy; video/projections by Jon Driscoll; wig/hair design by Paul Huntley; makeup design by Angelina Avallone; vocal and dialect coach, Beth McGuire
Cast: Rob McClure (Charlie Chaplin), Jim Borstelmann (Alf Reeves), Jenn Colella (Hedda Hopper), Erin Mackey (Oona O’Neill), Michael McCormick (Mack Sennett/Charlie Chaplin Sr./McGranery), Christiane Noll (Hannah Chaplin), Zachary Unger (Young Charlie Chaplin/Jackie Coogan) and Wayne Alan Wilcox (Sydney Chaplin).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including an intermission.
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