Music & Lyrics by Christopher Curtis
Book by Christopher Curtis & Thomas Meehan
Directed & Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Location: Barrymore Theatre 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036
Set Designer: Beowulf Boritt, Lighting: Ken Billington, Costumes: Amy Clark, Martin Pakledinaz, Sound Design: Scott Lehrer, Drew Levy
Starring Robert McClure, Michael McCormick, Jim Borstelmann, Jenn Colella, Erin Mackey, Michael McCormick, Christiane Noll, Zachary Unger, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Emilee Dupré
More than any other entertainer, Charlie Chaplin’s name and image are synonymous with the wordless communication of emotion, character, even physics. The idea of the quintessential silent movie star suddenly bursting into song seems awkward to say the least, so the very title of a show called Chaplin the Musical sounds like a contradiction in terms. It is possible, of course, to fashion a good musical out of almost any subject matter, and certainly there was enough drama in Chaplin’s life to provide some good plot material. Ultimately though, co-creators Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan fall short of justifying the musicalization of their subject.
The song list features the usual assortment: a “want song” an “11 O’clock song” et cetera. It’s not a bad score in and of itself. But, with few exceptions, the songs feel arbitrary, with numbers shoehorned into what would otherwise be an intriguing straight-play treatment of the topic This is unfortunate, as there is much to admire in this production. Its black-and-white design concept is adroitly executed, and its script offers a fresh, irreverent take on Chaplin’s famed personal, professional and political entanglements.
Opening with a critical moment in the life of adult Chaplin (Rob McClure), the story then drifts back in time to 19th Century London. Here, Hannah Chaplin (Christiane Noll) encourages her little son (Zachary Unger) to look closely at the life that surrounds him. Keenly observant, the lad watches the mannerisms of passersby, storing images that will surface later in his film work.
He takes a more active role when Hannah, a headliner on the music hall circuit, suffers a memory lapse on stage. Charles finishes the Cockney drinking song ‘What’cha Gonna Do?”(the show’s memorable number) and the crowd eats it up. The kid’s show business career has begun. Trouble soon follows, though, as Hannah’s deteriorating health lands her in a mental hospital. Deadbeat Charles Senior (Michael McCormick) is of no help, so Charlie’s older half-brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox) steps in to become the family’s chief provider. Syd’s employer, comedy impresario Fred Karno (William Ryall) eventually takes Charlie on as well. The young comedian catches the attention of film producer Mack Sennett, and Charlie is off to Hollywood.
In one of the few numbers that succeed in moving the story forward, Sennett gradually reaches the end of his fuse as the theater-trained Chaplin fails to get the hang of movie buffoonery. Threatened with termination, Charlie thinks fast, and the Little Tramp is soon born.
Fame follows and Charlie sends for Syd, who negotiates for more money and greater control. Charlie is soon directing, producing, even building his own studio. With his newfound artistic freedom, Chaplin adds autobiographical touches to his films. In The Kid, the Tramp is separated from his adopted son, creating a tableau that echoes Charlie’s own devastating severance from Hannah. Director Warren Carlyle seems to despair of the audience making such connections on its own, and scenes from Chaplin’s past are often reenacted in swirling vignettes to show where he gets his ideas.
Far more involving are the scenes that deal concretely with the filmmaking process and the impact Chaplin’s uncompromising drive has on the people around him. He torments child star Jackie Coogan (Unger) in order to obtain a perfect shot of the child in tears, then rushes to embrace him once the footage is captured. Do the ends justify the means? Charlie’s first wife Mildred Harris (Hayley Podsschun) doesn’t think so. The Kid secures Chaplin’s reputation as an auteur, but his workaholism leaves Mildred feeling neglected and wanting out. She will not be the last.
The pace picks up in the second act, which opens with Chaplin’s string of failed marriages presented as a slapstick boxing match. Mildred Harris, Lita Grey and Paulette Goddard all give Charlie a beating in divorce proceedings. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella) serves as a ringside announcer, clearly relishing the Tramp’s defeats. Things worsen when Hopper requests an interview and is snubbed by Chaplin. This, combined with her distaste for Charlie’s liberal politics, puts Hedda on the warpath. “Wat’cha Gonna Do?” is reprised, quite effectively, as an anthem of sadism as Hopper goes gunning for her target. Colella makes an apt villainess, hurling herself about the stage with a Nationalistic zeal and predatory satisfaction.
While trouble brews, Chaplin transitions to the sound era with hits like the antifascist satire The Great Dictator and finally attains stability with his fourth wife Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey).
His happiness is threatened, however, when Hopper joins forces with the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. A specious paternity suit brought by unstable actress Joan Barry (Emilee Dupré) proves one scandal too many, and Chaplin finds himself persona non grata in Hollywood. On a trip overseas, he is informed that the State Department has denied him an access visa. He does not set foot on American soil again until 1972, when he accepts a special Oscar awarded by a contrite Motion Picture Academy.
All in all, the show is most remarkable for its performances, especially the lead. McClure nimbly captures both Chaplin’s physicality and the contradictory aspects of his personality. He is as cantankerous as he is vulnerable, uncompromising in his pursuit of his own vision even as he aches for approval. Years from now, if Chaplin is remembered, it will be as his Broadway debut.