Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin
La Jolla Playhouse

Rob McClure and Ashley Brown
Charlie Chaplin was an audacious performer, a successful entrepreneur, and naïve as a political activist. He became king of Hollywood, only to have Hollywood turn against him and then embrace him again (a little) as controversy over the failed U.S. war in Vietnam spilled over into filmmaking. Nevertheless, his Little Tramp character continues to delight new generations, even though the technology of film has rendered his movies as primitive.

Chaplin sought and achieved the limelight and then lost it, and that point is made clearly in the new musical Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, currently playing its world premiere engagement, through October 17, at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse. What may be missing from this entertaining evening is some examination of the limelight itself.

Writers Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan have focused their book on their subject's life, telling the story from Chaplin's perspective. It is an artful rendering told in episodes, but using common tropes such as the desire for wealth, creativity as feeding the soul, foolishness in love, and passionate naïveté. We follow Chaplin from London's music hall and vaudeville scene to Hollywood's silent film era and how Hollywood developed from a place to an industry. Social issues or effects of Chaplin's behavior on his personal relationships are treated lightly, though; the focus is on how Chaplin dealt with these events. There's little of the "first this happened, and then this happened," which was so prevalent in Leslie Bricusse's book for the Old Globe's Sammy, but there's also little interrogation of why Chaplin sought the limelight and what he learned from his experience.

Revisions were made during the preview period leading up to opening night. Two characters were eliminated, Chaplin's father and an older version of Chaplin, and one character, a prosecutor who pursues Chaplin based on his alleged Communist sympathies, was added. These changes primarily affected veteran character actor Ron Orbach, who was playing Chaplin's father and who added the prosecutor to his repertoire, while William Youmans, who was playing the older Chaplin, was apparently let go. The show played on opening night as though none of those revisions were fresh ones, however, which may well be a credit to the quality and flexibility of the cast.

And it is a high quality cast, many of them doubling the many featured roles. Among the performing luminaries are Ashley Brown (Mary Poppins), who plays the younger version of Charlie's mother, as well as his last wife Oona, showing off her luscious soprano in each role; Matthew Scott (Sondheim on Sondheim), who plays Charlie's faithful brother Sydney; the aforementioned Mr. Orbach, who barks convincingly as the silent film pioneer Mack Sennett; Jenn Colella (High Fidelity), who juices up the villain role as the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper; and Jake Evan Schwenke (Billy Elliot), who convincingly plays both Charlie as a boy and Jackie Coogan, Chaplin's co-star in The Kid.

The show is really Chaplin's however, and Rob McClure gave a star-making performance on opening night. He sang the hell out of Mr. Curtis' melodic and full-throated score, danced the hell out of Warren Carlyle's choreography (particularly in a number where he entered a Chaplin look-alike contest), and made himself entirely believable as both Chaplin the man and as his sublime character, the Little Tramp. At the curtain call, Mr. McClure looked so relieved (perhaps that they had all made it through a show that had undergone major changes) and then so overwhelmed by the cheering that he grabbed Ms. Brown and danced her off the stage.

Mr. Carlyle and Michael Unger's production moves quickly and in cinematic fashion, much like a Mack Sennett two-reeler. In fact, the show uses film effectively (credit Zachary Borovay with an outstanding projection design) and sometimes in a startling manner, at several points creating visual coups de theatre by combining film with live action. Even with a two-and-a-half hour running time the performance speeds by.

Limelight may not provide a lot of insight into Chaplin as a man or as a product of his times, but it does serve to celebrate the lasting contributions of a brilliant entertainer.

Performances through October 17 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse. Tickets ($44 -$80) available by calling the box office at (858) 550-1010 or by visiting The La Jolla Playhouse website.

La Jolla Playhouse presents Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis, book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan. Directed by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger, with Bryan Perri, music director; Warren Carlyle, choreographer; Alexander Dodge, scenic designer; Linda Cho, costume designer; Paul Gallo, lighting designer; Jon Weston, sound designer; Zachary Borovay, projection designer; Douglas Besterman, orchestrator; Gabriel Greene, dramaturg; Debra Hale, vocal and dialect coach; Frank Hartenstein, production stage manager; and Dan Kamin, Script Consultant and Physical Comedy Specialist.

The cast includes Robert McClure, Ashley Brown, LJ Benet , Jenn Colella Eddie Korbich, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Ron Orbach, Roland Rusinek, Jake Schwenke , and Matthew Scott . The ensemble includes Aaron Acosta, Courtney Corey, Matthew Patrick Davis, Justin Michael Duval, Sara Edwards, Ben Liebert, Alyssa Marie, Jennifer Noble, Kürt Norby, Carly Nykanen, Jessica Reiner-Harris and Kirsten Scott.

Photo: Craig Schwartz

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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