Chaplin: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Rob McClure delivers a star-making turn as Charlie Chaplin in this disappointly schematic theatrical portrayal of the screen legend's life and loves.

The ambitious new Broadway bio-musical depicts the life and career of the legendary screen star.

Charlie Chaplin has finally made it to Broadway in the form of Chaplin, the new bio-musical about the life and career of the legendary screen star. But it may be a case of too little, too late, as this undeniably heartfelt and ambitious effort fails to live up to its potential and its target audience may no longer be ambulatory.

Previously seen at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse under the title Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, the show does, however, boast a star-making performance by Rob McClure in the title role. The relatively unknown actor -- previously seen in the brief run of Where’s Charley? at NYC’s Encores! -- dazzles in a physically virtuosic turn that well conveys Chaplin’s sublime comic grace.

Too bad that that his strong efforts aren’t better supported in this mostly uninspired effort, featuring a largely unmemorable score by Christopher Curtis and a schematic, psychology-heavy book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers).

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The episodic proceedings depict Chaplin’s emotionally and professionally tumultuous life, beginning with his hardscrabble beginnings in 1890’s London through the peak of his Hollywood stardom, with a brief epilogue set in 1972 when he returned to the United States after decades in exile to receive an honorary Academy Award.

Tracing Chaplin’s genius for characterization back to his mother Hannah’s (a moving Christiane Noll) advising him in song to "Look At All the People," the narrative is frequently interrupted with melodramatic, motivation-explaining flashbacks back to his troubled, impoverished childhood that was traumatized by her eventual institutionalization.

It dutifully tracks Chaplin’s career progression from London’s music halls to working for Mack Sennett in Hollywood, although non-aficionados will probably not be terribly interested in the details of his stints at the Essanay and Mutual Studios and his eventual formation of his own production company.

More entertaining is the treatment of the star’s numerous troubled relationships and marriages, especially with one particularly clever scene in which he enters a boxing ring to spar with several of his hostile wives in succession. Another thing the show gets right is its depiction of Chaplin’s struggle to create his iconic Little Tramp, with McClure’s adoption of the character’s signature costume and physical movements earning spontaneous applause.

But while the show is reasonably entertaining in its first half depicting Chaplin’s rise to worldwide fame, it drags considerably in the second act with the character’s inevitable fall from grace. Here his downfall is seen as largely being engineered by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (forcefully played by Jenn Colella), who practically twirls a moustache in her big revenge song “All Falls Down” in which she boasts about her campaign to paint him as a communist.

With some exceptions, such as the soaring closing ballad "This Man" performed by the entire ensemble, the score, featuring influences that include the British music hall, fails to impress.

Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle elaborate staging, which begins with the arresting image of Chaplin walking a high-wire, provides some compensations. Clever touches abound, such as monochromatic costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz and Amy Clark and sets by Beowulf Boritt that give the production the look of an old B&W movie. Adding to that effect are projections, not only of vintage photographs and clips from Chaplin’s movies, but also of the sort of marks of dust and wear and tear endemic to old film prints.

Besides the diminutive McClure’s strong turn in the title role, there are appealing performances by Wayne Alan Wilcox as Chaplin’s loyal brother Syd; Michael McCormick in a variety of roles including Mack Sennett; Jim Borstelmann as Chaplin’s music hall colleague who followed him to Hollywood; and Erin Mackey as Oona O’Neill, to whom Chaplin would eventually be married for decades until his death.

Cast: Rob McClure, Jim Borstelmann, Jenn Colella, Erin Mackey, Michael McCormick, Christiane Noll, Zachary Unger, Wayne Alan Wilcox

Director-choreographer: Warren Carlyle

Book: Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan.

Music and lyrics: Christopher Curtis

Set designer: Beowulf Boritt

Costume designers: Amy Clark, Martin Pakledinaz

Lighting designer: Ken Billington

Sound designer: Scott Lehrer, Drew Levey

Video/projection designer: Jon Driscoll

Presented by Rich Entertainment Group, John & Claire Caudwell, Roy Gabay, Viertel Routh Frankel Baruch Group, Chunsoo Shin/Waxman-Dokton, Broadway Across America, by special arrangement with Bubbles Incorporated, S.A. & Roy Export S.A.S.