Chaplin: The Musical begins on a high note as the titular character walks a tightrope, struggling to keep his balance while people from his life look up at him and echo the question, “Whatcha gonna do when it all falls down?” This dark (both literally and metaphorically) scene is a promising beginning to Chaplin, the laborious biopic musical currently in performances at the Barrymore Theater. Sadly, nothing that follows the opening scene measures up to its standards.
As the new musical by Christopher Curtis (book, music and lyrics) with additional book writing from Thomas Meehan strives to show us, Charlie Chaplin did not have the world on a string. Rather, he walked a tightrope, attempting to balance his successful movie star persona with his lost little-boyhood. Chaplin, which covers the entire span of Charlie’s life, from his humble beginnings in London to becoming a millionaire movie star in Hollywood, paints an overly sympathetic, one-note portrait of one of the most famous men in the history of Hollywood.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, Chaplin is burdened by a heavy-handed script that covers too much material in too little time. Packed to the brim with flashbacks of Charlie’s lonely childhood and focusing on his troubled relationship with his mother, the book rushes through pivotal moments, merely mentioning them in passing or cramming three or four of them into one musical number. Beginning with Charlie as a little boy (played by the charming Zachary Unger), we meet him walking the streets of London with his mother (an underused Christianne Noll). Charlie’s unhappy home life with an alcoholic father is hinted at, and his mother’s mental illness is foreshadowed (it manifests later, when she forgets the words to a song when performing and Charlie takes the stage in her place). She is institutionalized, and years later, the adult Charlie (Rob McLure, excellent) is recruited to Hollywood to star in silent films. The creation of the Little Tramp, Chaplin’s most famous on-screen role, ensues, inspired by memories of his mother, and fame quickly follows.
It follows much too quickly, in fact, as Charlie seems to skyrocket to fame in a matter of two musical numbers where all business deals take place in 60 seconds or less. Cinephiles will recognize some of the famous names that are dropped, and theater buffs will laugh and/or roll their eyes when hearing the tired jabs at moviemaking. (One man tells Charlie, “This is Hollywood. We don’t have characters here!”) As Charlie’s star rises in Hollywood, his identity crisis does as well, which is one of the themes this show attempts to focus on. When attending his first movie in London, he says, “There on that screen I could be somebody other than me,” and the Act One finale number, where a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest is held, depicts him being lost in a crowd of clones, all of whom are trying to be him. It is both eerie and confusing, but its sensual impact is quickly lost amongst heavy-handed dialogue such as, “Would someone as interesting as you possibly be interested in someone like me?” or lyrics like, “Hey, Syd, I think I might have found my place, Syd/People recognize my face, Syd.”
Act Two explores Charlie’s’ later years, including his four wives and the smear campaign run by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who attempts to paint him as a Communist. It also attempts to portray how fame affects Charlie, inflating his ego and making him insensitive to others. It is a relief to finally see some character flaws at least attempting to be included in the script; throughout the first act, Charlie seems much too perfect and noble a human being. But these scenes are so rushed, – especially the build up to Charlie’s exile from the United States, which is depicted through projections of newspaper headlines – that they may be confusing to those not familiar with Charlie’s life. The standard moments of any biopic, such as losing his best friend and facing the demons of his past, are in the script, but they do not resonate emotionally. This lack of emotional depth is especially evident when he visits his mother at the hospital for the first time in years and she doesn’t recognize him.
The title role is skillfully performed by Rob McLure, who does a spot-on impersonation of the Little Tramp and capably executes the physical demands of the role, including playing a violin, walking a tightrope and tap-dancing while wearing roller skates. McLure has a strong voice, a charming stage presence and is a talented dancer, but he never registers fully as a character due to the lack of development in the script. No one onstage does; instead they are merely plot devices. As Charlie’s older brother Syd, Wayne Alan Wilcox is kind and level-headed, and Jim Borstelmann plays Charlie’s long-suffering assistant. Erin Mackey is sweet and kind as Oona O’Neill, Charlie’s last wife, but it is Jenn Colella who provides some much-needed energy to the show as Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist who smears Charlie’s reputation with rumors of Communism. Her Act Two solo, “Whatcha Gonna Do?” is a show-stopper and Colella embraces the sexy and powerful side of the song, performing a pantomime with Chaplin as she effectively makes him her puppet. (It is also worth noting that McLure is outstanding in this skit).
While no characters in the script are given the development they deserve, I was especially disappointed in the portrayal of the female characters in Chaplin. Charlie’s first wife is portrayed as nothing more than a gold digger; his last wife is nothing more than the Good Woman who saves him after he gets his desire for promiscuity out of his system. (Her big love song with him opens with the line, “Let me show you the best that’s inside you.”) Hedda Hopper apparently ruined Charlie’s reputation and contributed to him being exiled from America out of nothing more than spite and jealousy that he would not be interviewed on her radio show. And his mother, who the show depicts as one of the inspirations of the Little Tramp as well as the main source of grief and conflict in his life, is so purified and sanitized by the show that she might as well be billed as Saint Hannah in the Playbill. While her mental illness is addressed, the prostitution and diseases she contracted as a result are somehow left out.
Staged on Beowulf Boritt’s set, which evokes a Hollywood soundstage, with black, white and grey costumes by Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz, Chaplin attempts to depict the old-fashioned days of Hollywood but elements of the still resonates with a modern audience. The techniques Hedda Hopper uses in her smear campaign against Charlie inspired thoughts of the misrepresentation of President Obama’s statement, “You didn’t build that!” which have filled the headlines throughout the past few months. While its timeliness may have not been the intention of Chaplin, it is worth appreciating. As for the musical itself, the Little Tramp deserved something better.