Film and theatre are diametrically opposed art forms. The former excels at the intimate, excavating hidden moments and private feelings for all to see. The latter, on the other hand, works in the broad strokes, accentuating the ordinary in a grand manner. So could it have ever been possible to bring the life story of one of cinema’s most luminary figures, Charlie Chaplin, to the stage in a complete and convincing manner?
The jury’s still out where that verdict is concerned, but Chaplin: the Musical, the bio-musical about the Little Tramp directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle that just opened at the Barrymore Theatre, traffics in too many story-of-a-lifetime clichés to fully grasp the person it portrays or to adequately encompass the ups and downs of a superstar over the course of eight decades. Gone are the days when a simple chronological checklist of events is enough to educate an audience in a fresh and satisfying way.
Chaplin book writers Christopher Curtis (who also composed the score) and Thomas Meehan (Hairspray, The Producers) introduce Charlie (Rob McClure) on a tightrope, atop his adoring friends and family. The man may be agile, but he’s trying to rise above an awful lot, the musical surmises. As the performer quickly accelerates from life as a talented vaudeville performer in the East End of London to Hollywood player discovered by slapstick innovator and early filmmaker Mack Sennett (Michael McCormick), he remains haunted by the memory of his mother, Hannah (Christiane Noll). Eventually, early-onset dementia forced her to be confined to an asylum, while Charlie traversed half the globe in the name of fame. His guilt infests all of his work, starting with The Kid, the first silent that sent Chaplin to the stratosphere – and enabled for his more pragmatic brother, Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox), to leave London as well and become his agent and business manager.
Chaplin’s life had many chapters, though, and once he becomes a success, Curtis and Meehan start hurtling through them at breakneck speed. Every now and then Carlyle imbues a nice touch, such as a dance number that mimics Chaplin’s famous bread roll dance from The Gold Rush, but the story, like its design itself (with costumes from the team of Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, Ken Billington’s lighting design, and set design by Beowulf Boritt) is too black-and-white. Chaplin the man remains unhappy while Chaplin the star smiles for all the world to see, blaming his malaise on mommy issues (Hannah reappears to him throughout the show, in a tiresome manner) and wives who only wanted him for his money. The musical briefly addresses his first three marriages, and paints his union with Erin Mackey’s Oona O’Neill (daughter of Eugene) as one of complete loyalty, making little of their infamous age difference (they married when he was 54 years old and she was only 18), and nothing of his predilection for teenage girls at all.
It comes as a relief in the second act when the magnificent Jenn Colella storms the stage as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, eager to out Chaplin as a Communist and ruin his career, at which point Chaplin becomes a different animal, one resembling a student cramming in the last few decades of history prior to an AP exam. Curtis and Meehan do not assume their audience knows anything about their subject, but they and Carlyle gloss over events so quickly – not just the man’s marriages but also his guilt following The Great Dictator as Hitler continued to rise to power, movies like Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux, his growing ego, his eventual exile – that none of them register.
Chaplin does one thing miraculously, though: gives birth to a new star in the form of McClure. Physically, emotionally, musically, it’s lightning in a bottle, and the man should certainly be remembered come end of season for a dazzling performance. McClure masters all of the tramp’s tricks – his funny gait, his way with a cane and a hat – and, even more impressively, provides the emotional subtext behind them. For instance, many of Chaplin’s early defining physical choices came from a place lacking in confidence; his moves were essentially full-body shrugs, which is in keeping for a show whose thesis is that the man remained connected to his early London childhood. Chaplin may go astray, but its star never once misses his mark.
Chaplin: the Musical
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Open run.
Trackback from your site.