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While nobody ever said musical theatre was easy – at least, nobody with any real knowledge of the art – you would think that in writing a musical about the first worldwide beloved figure of the 20th Century there wouldn’t be too much trouble establishing empathy. But the surprisingly dry and emotionless Chaplin, presented in a respectably strong Broadway production, tries to cram so many facts into its two acts that there’s little room left for feeling.
Bookwriter/composer/lyricist Christopher Curtis’ Behind The Limelight, as the show was previously known, seemed extremely promising when it played the New York Musical Theatre Festival six years ago. But despite the addition of master craftsman Thomas Meehan to co-author the book, Chaplin, though it has its moments of charm, comes off as more of a check-list of events than a dramatically propelled entertainment.
The evening begins symbolically with a recreation of Charlie Chaplin’s high wire scene from The Circus, perhaps not the most iconic image from his career. As he struggles to keep his balance, characters below yell out lines from conflicts that are yet to come. While singing on a high wire may not be the easiest task in the world (even when, as in this case, the actor is hooked to safety wires), the moment cries out for a musical reaction from the protagonist, but he remains silent.
We then go back to the man’s London childhood, where his saloon-singing mother (the lovely-voiced and underutilized Christiane Noll) encourages her son (Zachary Unger) to watch the people he passes by every day and imagine the stories that lie beneath their faces. It’s a strong beginning to the story, but once the grown-up Chaplin (Rob McClure) takes over, we’re told that his comedy act, with his straight man brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox), is a popular music hall attraction without ever getting a sample of it.
We suddenly find out that director Mack Sennett (dependable comic tough guy type Michael McCormick) happened to be in the audience one night and has offered him a higher salary than he’s ever imagined to go to Hollywood and make movies. But when he arrives in California, Sennett finds him completely unfunny on his first day filming. Under the threat of being fired, Chaplin remembers his mother’s advice and develops his Little Tramp character by thinking about the Londoners he once observed. And while the sequence climaxes with the creation of the Chaplin we all came to see, the authors have yet to establish any sense of the man who created him, nor whatever talent he had that the film director originally saw. There’s no thrill in seeing what he became if we have no idea from where he started.
Once we’re told that Chaplin has fast become a popular star (instead of seeing the public’s reaction and learning what it was about the Little Tramp that immediately appealed to audiences), Sennett is out of the picture and Sydney starts negotiating new deals as Charlie’s manager. Though the relationship between the two brothers is the one with the most dramatic potential – particularly because of issue of their mother’s long-term dementia – the authors instead race through decades of material (four teenage wives, the affect of talkies on his career, his on-screen mockery of Hitler, accusations that send him to exile in Switzerland and, finally, an honorary Oscar in 1972) with a parade of one-note characters. The first act ends with a ballet of a dozen Chaplins mimicking the star as part of a look-alike contest; well-executed, but meaningless to the drama.
In the second act brassy-voiced Jenn Colella injects some much-needed musical comedy adrenaline into the proceedings as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who, according to the text, tried to ruin Chaplin’s career because he wouldn’t give her an interview.
Though the material is lacking (the revised score felt much stronger at the festival) director/choreographer Warren Carlyle mounts a handsome enough production, smoothly mixing live action with film clips of McClure. Designers Beowulf Boritt (set), Ken Billington (lights) and Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) nicely dress the evening in monochrome visuals.
Through a silent art that defied boundaries of language and a new technology that could quickly distribute that art around the globe, Charlie Chapin became world famous faster than anyone could have imagined when the 1900s began. And yet this musical conveys none of the excitement of that time, none of the romance of the period and certainly none of the joy of Chaplin’s work. McClure does an admirable job impersonating the icon, but the gloomy musical he carried on his shoulders offers little opportunity for the actor to shine.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Rob McClure; Bottom: Jenn Colella.
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Posted on September 25, 2012 - by
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About the Author:After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.