|Rob McClure, refusing to let subpar material ruin his big break on Broadway.|
You want to like Chaplin, the new musical by composer/lyricist Christopher Curtis and bookwriter Thomas Meehan that’s currently playing the Barrymore Theatre. The life of silent film star Charlie Chaplin certainly features enough drama to sustain a full-length musical, and the show benefits from several strong performances by a mix of Broadway veterans and relative newcomers. Unfortunately, an abundance of structural missteps and ill-advised story tangents prevent the show from achieving its full potential, and the resulting work is a frustratingly muddled mess of unfulfilled promise.
Obviously, dramatizing anyone’s life brings with it inherent problems, as real life seldom occurs in steadily rising dramatic action that leads to a clean and tidy end. Like many showbiz stories, Chaplin does a reasonably good job of chronicling Chaplin’s rise to fame in turn of the century Hollywood, utilizing his troubled relationship with his mentally-ill mother to provide dramatic tension during his virtually unencumbered ascension to superstardom. But the second act, which chronicles Chaplin’s tumultuous personal life and eventual fall from grace, feels unfocused and haphazard. In Meehan and Curtis’ libretto, one scene rarely flows smoothly into the next, and coherent character motivations are practically nonexistent.
The show also suffers from an uncertain tone, unsuccessfully attempting to split the difference between low comedy and high drama. Even the relatively conflict-free first act fails to create many laughs, a sin that seems almost unforgivable in a show whose central figure is one of the all-time masters of slapstick. Things are generally played straight and very serious, but the authors stop themselves from fully committing to the inherent drama of Chaplin’s life by glossing over its more unpleasant aspects. The star’s multiple marriages to underage woman aren’t explored in any detail, and his demanding and somewhat unethical directorial methods are given only a cursory mention. Even Chaplin’s relationship with his mother seems underdeveloped, as he spends a majority of the show avoiding her and we are mostly told rather than shown that her condition is getting worse.
Christopher Curtis’ score also underwhelms, with his sometimes interesting melodic ideas rarely coalescing into fully formed songs. The only piece of music that feels complete is the jazzy “All Falls Down,” written for a vindictive gossip columnist named Hedda Hopper who has made it her life’s mission to ruin Chaplin’s good name. And even that song is difficult to enjoy because it comes out of nowhere, forcing the audience to spend much of its duration wondering why a woman who has never even met Chaplin suddenly hates him so much (it apparently has something to do with his refusal to grant her an interview).
Yet the hardworking cast takes this subpar material and performs it with such earnestness and conviction that they almost succeed in making it sing. In the title role, Rob McClure gives such a tour de force performance that you don’t question for a second why the producers entrusted an unknown with such an enormous part. McClure has clearly spent hours researching the Little Tramp and perfecting his mannerisms, which pays off in his expert handling of the large amounts of physical comedy and recreation of some of Chaplin’s most famous bits. He performs all of his numbers with gusto, and imbues the eleven o’clock ballad “Where Are All the People?” with a dramatic weight it honestly doesn’t deserve (like “All Falls Down,” the song comes out of nowhere). McClure paints as complete a picture of Chaplin as the material will allow, and uses his buoyant, assured performance to cover up many of the writing’s flaws.
Past Tony-nominee Christiane Noll does well with the underwritten role of Chaplin’s mother, cramming one of the biggest character arcs of the night into her limited stage time. Jenn Colella’s hardboiled Hedda Harper is such a strong presence you end up wishing there was more of her, which would have the added benefit of fleshing out one of the story’s key conflicts. And as Oona O’Neil, Chaplin’s fourth and final wife, Erin Mackey imbues her character with enough charm and quiet strength that you can almost forgive the fact that she doesn’t appear until midway through Act II, despite being the show’s primary love interest.
Finally, special mention must be made of Zachary Unger, the child actor who plays the young Charlie Chaplin. Displaying a startling amount of maturity and emotional honesty, Unger could give many adult actors lessons in sincerity. When he breaks into tears as Chaplin’s mother is taken away to the mental hospital, he’s so convincing you want to run onstage and give him an enormous hug. (The fact that Unger is cute as a button doesn’t hurt, either.)
From a production standpoint, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle does a serviceable job, although you get the impression that his desire for more dancing hinders the show more than it helps. Particularly egregious is Carlyle’s decision to end Act I with a chorus of dancing Chaplin lookalikes, a decision so out of left field that the audience will spend most of intermission wondering what he was thinking. The design team’s creative conceit to construct the sets and costumes using only shades of black and white is a neat idea that isn’t fully realized, and results in the show appearing too dark on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, the ten person orchestra is in desperate need of a few extra players to provide the show with a richer and fuller sound.
Thanks to the hardworking cast, Chaplin has all-too-brief moments of entertainment and genuine dramatic interest. Because the performers are so good, you really wish the musical they appear in gave them better material to work with. The idea of a show about Charlie Chaplin remains an intriguing notion, and one hopes that eventually a great version of the story makes its way to Broadway. For now, we will have to settle for this half-baked concoction instead.