Jim Borstelmann, a sturdily built song and dance man of 17 consecutive years on Broadway, is used to challenges. His credits include the original cast of CHICAGO and the Mel Brooks musicals THE PRODUCERS and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Most recently he played Uncle Fester in The Addams Family. But in CHAPLIN THE MUSICAL, Borstelmann may well be tackling his most demanding role, that of Alf Reeves, the lifelong friend and business manager of Charlie Chaplin.
CHAPLIN THE MUSICAL is the story of a man who rose from the slums of London to Hollywood legend. The musical explores the man behind the legend who created myriad silent movies and classic films including “The Gold Rush,” “The Kid” and “City Lights.”
Reeves teamed up with Chaplin (played by Rob McClure) when they both started careers in London around 1910. Taking a 20-year-old Chaplin under his wing, Reeves contributed his business acumen and intuition, qualities that served the partnership well.
“Chaplin was this bigger-than-life character on screen who was always getting in trouble, with outcomes that were always hilarious and oftentimes poignant,” said Borstelmann, whose initial familiarity with Chaplin began and ended with “The Little Tramp.”
Portraying a historical figure presents a different sort of challenge for Borstelmann. “What’s been most educational is learning how to define Reeves’ character and doing a more dramatic role than I’ve done in the past,” he said in a recent interview.
Borstelmann’s task is to find the balance between humor and drama, with a lot of physical shenanigans onstage.
Playing such a physical role is not without its dangers. “One time I got hit in the head with a flagpole,” Borstelmann said. “It’s a good thing I have a big, thick head.”
Another time a telephone, an important prop in a particular scene, was missing from the stage. Borstelmann spotted the phone backstage, or so he thought. He hustled over to collect it, “except it turned out to be a drill bit,” said Borstelmann, who’s rarely gone without his glasses since.
“I found out about the part when it began as a workshop,” Borstelmann said. “And I’m so proud and lucky that I landed the part. I got so emotional when I was told I had it, I cried.
“The fact that I became so emotional is a reflection of why it means so much to me,” he said. And it’s not just about the subject matter, but also about the cast and crew members. “Being in a production is about being a team player, and I especially like to teach the youngsters so they can pass it on. I feel almost obligated to do this just as I was taught by more seasoned performers.”
Audience response to CHAPLIN THE MUSICAL has been overwhelming. “I’m learning that this great entertainer we’ve grown up with has touched and moved millions through his movies,” he said. Audience members who come backstage after a performance have been often moved to tears. “I look at it like tears of joy.”
He also knows what to do when he gets too wound up before a performance: “I just take a huge cleansing breath and I’m in a wonderful mood.”
CHAPLIN THE MUSICAL, music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis and book by Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis, is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. chaplinbroadway.com.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / Retna Ltd.