Chaplin the Musical

Book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan
Music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis
Musical direction by Bryan Perri
Directed by Warren Carlyle
Featuring Robert McClure, Jenn Colella, Christiane Noll
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street
September 10, 2012 — open
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 6, 2012

Rob McClure. Image by Joan Marcus.

Singing, dancing, staged versions of famous filmed sequences, pretty costumes, an outrageously simplistic and unbalanced story line and one or two grand stage pictures fill the stage of Chaplin the Musical. We are shown the story of Charlie Chaplin, a poor boy with a mentally unstable mother and a talent to amuse that got him out of the turn of the century London slums at the invitation of filmmaker Mack Sennett. While he makes millions and charms the world in his guise of “the little Tramp” first for Sennett and eventually for his own production company, we are shown a Chaplin who is capable of only childlike relationships. We are told that his politics become a little uncomfortable without sufficient specifics to analyze this claim, that the love of a good woman eventually calms him, and he returns at the end of his life to the country that shunned him.  (See the 1992 movie Chaplin for a much more nuanced portrayal of all of these ideas including a truly moving sequence that earns the emotion of the final return to Hollywood for Chaplin’s honorary Oscar after decades of exile in Switzerland.). If the sequence of events in this musicalization of his life is to be believed, Chaplin mastered the subtle nuances of playing to the motion picture camera after a single day of being yelled at by Mack Sennett, received riches beyond anyone’s imagination immediately after his first appearance on screen, and never matured beyond adolescent petulance in his dealings with his institutionalized mother. The life of this brilliant man deserves a better and more seriously thoughtful book.  A simpleton Chaplin was not.

Several examples of Chaplin’s famous movie sequences are evoked on film or in dance numbers. The Gold Rush‘s (1925) forked potatoes doing a can-can are invoked in a group line dance, and interactions with Jackie Coogan as The Kid (1921) illustrate Chaplin as a director — but nothing is described about this child actor who himself was pivotal in movie making history.  (The Coogan Law protecting the resources of child actors from guardians acting in their name carries his name.)  Chaplin’s physical shtick is nicely replicated on stage and on screen including lovely uses of scrims at numerous points, and live action melding into filmed action or replicating that action.

The book’s issues are numerous. We gather no sense of the man as a lover or as a brilliant movie storyteller. Chaplin’s politics are illustrated here as opportunistic involving nothing more complex than a general sympathy for the plight of the common man and Charlie embracing the fact that people are gathered at socialist or communist rallies to hear him speak.The book writers have opted to cast Charlie as a little boy forever hindered by the wounded mother he lost to mental illness at a young age. The makeup of Chaplin in his 80s toward the end of the play barely ages him beyond the young man we earlier saw coming to Hollywood more than 50 years before.

Rob McClure captures the youthful Chaplin physicality and on-screen charm, but (perhaps the book is entirely to blame) none of the depths of Chaplin as an adult man of serious politics, serious business, brilliant artistry. Christiane Noll plays the nuances of ailing Hannah Chaplin, who has a few scenes prior to her institutionalization to instill our sense of her as the dreamer, and her role in imparting that to Charlie.  Jenn Colella provides a stalwart attempt at crafting a character out of the caricature she is given to play in red-baiting patriot Hedda Hopper — who we are to believe is as miffed that Chaplin is unwilling to provide interviews for her publicity machine as she is by Chaplin’s apparent communist or socialist sympathizing.

A few ballads deserve a production afterlife, and Colella’s bright presence and Noll’s rich voice provide great pleasure. The use of scrim and projection in the first act to evoke Charlie’s purported first exposure to a film is exquisite. The show achieves a kind of focused power when the extraneous characters and frippery are stripped away and simple lighting effects illuminate a subtle comedic routine or solo ballads. The heart of the artist is in those moments.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 10, 2012)

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