‘Chaplin’ Won’t Leave You Speechless
By Isa Goldberg
A valentine to the movies and to the orphans we all are, the musical “Chaplin,” like the “flickers” about the Little Tramp, brings us a smile and perhaps a tear or two. Telling the story of his life while annotating the development of his films, the musical begins with a humorous, compassionate portrait. Depicting Chaplin’s childhood in the music halls of London and his mother’s decline into madness that led to his abandonment, Act I focuses on the making of “The Kid” as an autobiographical work. A tale about a Tramp and an orphaned child (Jackie Coogan), the 1921 silent film is a depiction of filial love amidst the depravity of poverty, ending ironically, with the bounties of Hollywood success.
Rob McClure portrays Chaplin as we most remember him – for his deft comedy and physical quirks. The flick of the leg, the melody of his moves, the sprint of his spirit are all there. In Act I, Christiane Noll brings her lustrous soprano to the role of Charlie’s loving mom. But as his major antagonist Hedda Hopper, Jenn Colella comes across like a feral blonde, imbuing Broadway tunes with a brashness that is memorable. Michael McCormick stands out in a series of roles including Mack Sennett who produced Chaplin’s early films, and Wayne Alan Wilcox is appropriately understated as Charlie’s brother and business manager. Chaplin’s first three wives are duly evoked and knocked off, before we meet the love of his life, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Eugene O’Neill (played by Erin Mackey) who he married in mid-life.
But what starts out as a well-crafted and ingeniously woven tale mirroring the man and his art, leads to a tabloid style portrait of the artist who became the object of others’ personal and professional scorn. Act II begins with an antic routine in the supposed style of “Modern Times,” however, the scene as performed totally overlooks the humanism of the artist who identified with the underdog. It’s jarring to see his masterful work debased like this.
Reductive and stereotypical, the second act, as written by Chirstopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan, is a poor imitation of “Sunset Boulevard” in which the repeated lyric “What you gonna do when it all falls down” is passed off as an excuse for the psychological and political demise of an iconic film artist. Fortunately, McClure delivers his climactic number “Where Are All the People?” with genuine passion. And there is another outstanding scene here in which Chaplin watches a film of Hitler addressing a crowd. Physically imitating the great dictator, he sings a bouncy little lyric, “I’m a little teapot short and stout,” with such a thick Germanic accent that the comedy outplays the tragedy.
Oddly, Christopher Curtis’ score doesn’t necessarily bring to mind the music we associate with Chaplin. Neither the repetitive rag time piano that accompanied the Tramp throughout his early silent films, nor the academy award winning score which he composed for “Limelight” are brought to life. Sadly, we are left with a simplistic string of romantic Broadway tuners.
Still, the production offers some skill in creating a stage story that traverses the artist’s world. Framed by “The Circus,” which won Chaplin his first Academy Award in 1929, the stage play transposes the movie’s virtuoso sequence between a pair of identical twin prize fighters (all played by one actor) into a boxing rink where Chaplin and his second wife, the litigious Lita Grey, duke it out. It’s a wonderful footnote as the film was delayed by her vicious divorce case as well as catastrophic production obstacles.
Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle does a lovely job with the table ballet from “The Gold Rush.” The scene, which is projected on stage, is later performed live by the show’s ensemble. If only to enjoy the trajectory of this unique artist, you should see “Chaplin.” It’s a kick!
“Chaplin” is at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, go www.telecharge.com or visit the box office.
Photo: Joan Marcus
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