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Chaplin: The Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 10, 2012

Chaplin: The Musical Book by Christopher Curtis & Thomas Meehan. Music & lyrics by Christopher Curtis. Directed & choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Amy Clark, Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Scott Lehrer, Drew Levy. Video/projection design by Jon Driscoll. Wig/hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Cast: Introducing Rob McClure as "Charlie Chaplin" Starring Jim Borstelmann, Jenn Colella, Erin Mackey, Michael McCormick, Christiane Noll, Zachary Unger, Wayne Alan Wilcox, with Justin Bowen, Emilee Dupré, Sara Edwars, Leslie Donna Flesner, Lisa Gajda, Timothy Hughes, Ethan Khusidman, Ian Liberto, Renée Marino, Michael Mendez, Sarah O'Gleby, Hayley Podschun, Adam Rogers, William Ryall, Eric Santagata, Emily Tyra.
Theatre: Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including two intermissions
Audience: Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 7:30 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: $66.50 - $195
Tickets: Telecharge

Rob McClure
Photo by Joan Marcus.

There's nothing quite like watching someone create an iconic figure before your eyes. When Rob McClure does just this near the middle of the first act of the musical Chaplin, which just opened at the Ethel Barrymore, you're dazzled by all the proper magic. The title character has arrived at a crucial moment, where he must quite literally define himself, and in a series of twirls about the stage he does just that. Drifting into his memory, he plucks a hat from one man, a jacket from another, the shoes from a third, and so on, until all that's left to apply is the rickety-stepladder walk. And once that too is in place, the English comedian–turned–American film neophyte Charlie Chaplin becomes The Tramp—and a legend is ignited.

McClure's transformation in this moment is all the more satisfying and important because, alas, it's the only time we witness a true star turn from either him or the man he's playing. Despite some pleasant tunes by Christopher Curtis and a handful of good lines strewn about Curtis and Thomas Meehan's otherwise messy book, neither the show as a piece of writing nor Warren Carlyle's production of it has anything useful, let alone original, to say about its namesake star or the Tinseltown show business in which he played such a critical part. And that's a particular problem for an evening that dedicates itself exclusively to presenting an actor about whom little is remembered today beyond the impression he left on celluloid.

Meehan has done little, if anything, to differentiate his subject from the central figures of any of dozens of other stage or screen bios, and in fact makes him rather less compelling than in the 1992 film of the same name (with Robert Downey, Jr.). We're hit right away with the typical grubby-to-golden trappings of a hardscrabble London upbringing, with the young Charlie (Zachary Unger) first watching his father drink himself to death, then see his loving mother (Christiane Noll) forcibly placed into a hospital. He escapes the workhouses by performing in the Karno comedy troupe, and gets noticed by American filmmaker Mack Sennett, who induces him to come to America, demands he be funny on camera, and leaves the rest—from astonishing success to three failed marriages and one successful one to career-stifling Communism accusations—to history.

But unlike more successful efforts along these lines, such as Gypsy or Funny Girl, this one extends no unusual effort to ensure that it naturally sings, or even moves in a lubricated, musical fashion. There's the inherent challenge that Chaplin made his name and his fortune doing silent films, which can't just be shown onstage for two and a half hours (though video and projection designer Jon Driscoll provides plenty of clever clips). The bigger problem is that there's no firm shape to the story: Chaplin spends the first act escaping poverty and then building his entertainment empire (neither of which presents much difficulty), then the second act absorbing the Red-baiting accusations of gossip maven Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella, obviously enjoying herself), who apparently wants to destroy Chaplin only because he won't let her interview him.

Nothing can stop the early scenes from being dully formulaic, though they're hardly aided by the one-dimensional presences of Charlie's envious brother–cum–business manager Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox) or supportive stage manager Alf (Jim Borstelmann), or the smarmily unhelpful Sennett (Michael McCormick, doing his best). Everything after intermission is baldly "bad versus good," with Hopper constantly sneering, Chaplin's first three wives portrayed as little more than gold-digging bimbos (and no mention at all made of his two children with second wife, Lita Grey), and the last, playwright Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona (Erin Mackey) only the purest salt of the earth. Curtis and Meehan seem interested only in Chaplin's name value and not his life value; even the finale of the first act wastes a golden opportunity by depicting the famous Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest the real article entered, but lost—the fickle irony apparently too heavy lifting for an outing this intentionally lightweight.

Rob McClure and company.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Chaplin's monochromatic nature is echoed, far too loudly, in Carlyle's staging. Designers Beowulf Boritt (set), Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), and Ken Billington (lights) have rendered practically everything in black, white, and gray, with even the performers clad in exceedingly pale makeup (the uneven work of Angelina Avallone). The result is both garish and ghoulish, a distraction from (if not outright dismissal of) the feelings that should be the show's foundation. Otherwise Carlyle's staging is fluid and his dances fine if unimaginative, but he never comes as close as he should to justifying the ugly gimmick that drives his nearly every directorial choice.

Coming off slightly better are the actors, with Noll and Wilcox leading the pack, and finding gentle honesty in the people they're playing, and Colella failing at doing so only because her role is not written to allow it. Borstelmann, McCormick, and Mackey provide able, if blasé support, and the young Ethan Khusidman making a surprising amount of his tiny role as an excitable usher.

What matters most, of course, is McClure. Although he never lacks for energy and his physical impersonation is generally correct throughout, he's missing both the spark and the polish that that anyone in such a mammoth role needs. Much of his acting is blandly mannered, too heavily reliant on indicative gestures, and his singing technically accomplished but disconnected from genuine emotion. He identifies the hooks of his songs, from the I-want-to-be-a-star "If I Left London" opener to the where-did-my-public-go closer "Where Are All the People?", but never develops them with any noticeable flair. When they soar or cut, which they seldom do, it's only because Curtis has mastered the mechanics that ensure they don't just lie flat.

Unfortunately, that's not enough to keep a musical like this buoyant. You need someone in the lead role who can convince you that, behind his unspeaking façade, Chaplin had something of worth to say. And that, alas, is not McClure. Nor does it seem to be Curtis or Meehan: Their show too often plays like a silent movie dubbed over with the wrong soundtrack. At least it comes alive during the film clips that let us focus on the human art and heart beyond the slick outer package, and during those golden minutes when we see how The Tramp came to be. The rest of the time, Chaplin looks and sounds grim and joyless in a way its subject, whatever woes he faced onscreen or off, never was.

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