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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Sennett and Normand may have lacked the needed instant recognition and juicy material for a sure-fire libretto. That certainly wasn't the case for Charlie Chaplin, whose iconic Little Tramp was born in Sennett's Hollywood Studio, had a sufficiently colorful personal life and career for a great musical. But as ideal a subject for a musical as Chaplin seemed to be, English actor, singer and songwriter Anthony Newley fared worse than Herman with his 1983 biopic Chaplin. I can't tell you why since it closed on the way to Broadway.
I'm happy to report that Curtis and Meehan's Chaplin, many changes for the better after its La Jolla, California premiere, gets enough right to be well worth seeing. It's a show for theater goers more interested n topnotch performances than name brand performers.
Not having seen the trial run in La Jolla, I can't comment on the specifics of the fixes made. Suffice it to say that the show's creative team has gotten it in good enough for it to deserve a healthy run at the Barrymore. Most importantly, Broadway newcomer Rob McClure is still on board with his incredibly versatile, physicaliy agile and emotionally powerful portrait of Chaplin's journey from London's vaudeville music hall days to Hollywood Hills. His morphing into the famous Little Tramp with his shuffling gait and cane is truly transformative. When not in his signature persona's silent mode he proves himself to be a fine singer whether alone or in duet and ensemble numbers. McClure has some fine credits under his belt (e.g. Where's Charley? for Encores!, Princeton in Avenue Q) but this is definitely a star is born performance that should be remembered when it's time to select the Tony candidates for Best Actor in a musical.
Is Chaplin good enough to be dubbed a classic, shades of South Pacific, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof? No way. But then how many new musicals you've seen in recent years are? The day of shows with memorable hummer after even more memorable hummer, are as much past history as neighborhood butcher shops, house calls by doctors, ; and, of course, silent movies like the ones Charlie Chaplin so brilliantly directed and starred — last year's The Actor, being an exceptional and successful exception.
Naturally, it's quite a challenge to musicalize a life as eventful as Charlie Chaplin's with enough pertinent details plus songs and dances to support and move that story forward. With Mehan and Curtis covering almost 60 years, from 1913 to 1972, it's a sure bet that for all its praiseworthy aspects, this is the kind of show that leaves itself open to plenty opportunities to nitpick.
The change from the original title Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, to just Chaplin, was probably a way to distance it from Anthony Newley's above-mentioned stillborn enterprise, and also avoid complaints that the show skips over the period when Chaplin made his Oscar-winning film, Limelight. On the other hand, those not impressed with the clever ways the book writers and director Warren Carlyle have found to cover everything from his London childhood, his love at first sight affair with the movies as well as his marriages and divorces are likely to bring quibbles of too much, too trivialized or too condensed book-ish.
While I didn't leave Chaplin without a few quibbles of my own its assets win the day. McClure alone makes buying a ticket a worthwhiel investment. Judged as a biography it may's rather too facile and playful with the facts, but it's very appealing visually and consistently entertaining. On balance, most politicians running for office would be happy to have this many positives to present to ther constitueats.
Though McClure's tour-de-force performance is the show's chief plus, this isn't a one trick ponly. There are plenty of other pluses to make Chaplin a go-to show, not years and years like The Lion King and Wicked but, unless my fellow critics badmouth it too much, for a decent spell.. The book focuses on Chaplin's key relationships with depth and insight. We come to understand how his childhood separation from his mentally ill mother (Christiane Noll) motivated his silent classic The Kid. His relationship with his brother and business manager Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox) conveys real emotional warmth. Meehan and Curtis also don't short change another critical element in, the making of The Great Dictator and Chaplin's feud with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jen Colella) that led to his long exile from the United States. Chaplin's rather unsavory taste for under-aged girls is understandably glossed over. His three unsuccessful marriages are also dealt with quickly, with the divorces metaphorically conflated into an amusing boxing ring scene that sends each of the first two spouses out of the ring with a bagful of money and gives current wife(Paulette Goddard) her knockdown revenge blow.
As directed by Warren Carlyle the show looks terrific. The grisaille palette makes Beowulf Boritt's atmospheric set as well as Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz's costumes of a piece with Jon Driscoll's superb video and projection design. The smoothly integrated clips from Chaplin's film are especially fitting and fascinating e and may well prompt viewers to check out some Chaplin DVDs to see more than these excerpts. Ken Billington's lighting further enhances the black and white film ambiance.
Carlyle's choreography adds many shining moments. The "Tramp Shuffle" with Charlie and a chorus line of look-alikes Charlies at Grauman's Chinese Theatre is great fun. A lively tango number that conjures up the Hollywood milieu is another choreographic highlight.
While Chaplin is very much McClure's show, the ensemble cast also deserves a big hand. The golden voice Christiane Noll is the major heartstring tugger as Charlie’s initially inspiring but eventually mentally ill mom. Other standouts include Wayne Alan Wilcox as devoted brother and business manager Sydney; Michael McCormick ably multi-tasking as Chaplin’s drunkard father and Mack Sennett, the filmmaker who brought Charlie to Hollywood. Young Zachary Unger is winning as young Charlie but the chief show stealer is Jen Colella, as the powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.s Her aggressive pursuit of a scoop
If I haven't said much about the score it's because that it's not Chaplin's strongest suit. It's okay but rather derivative. The melodies falls pleasantly on the ear. The lyrics rhyme smoothly but aren't really poetic. Noll's "Look At All the People" in the first act is nicely echoed with McLure's 11th hour solo, " Where Are All the People." " What Only Love Can See" sung solo by the love of his life, Oona O'Neill (Erin Mackey), and as a duet with Charlie is a hokey but effective ballad. For slam bang sizzle, there's Colella's riproaring "All Fall Down " solo
Ultimately, this bio-musical's book, music, choreography and performances add up to an enjoyable homage to a talented, complicated man. It aptly begins with an image of The Little Tramp projected on a big scrim. and closes with a return to that image and briefly animates it back to life — a vivid reminder that Charlie Chaplin will continue to be one of our great cultural icons. To further underscore that bright thought, the actors shed their grey scale costumes and take their curtain call bows in colorful regalia.
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