Friday, September 28, 2012

theatre review CHAPLIN, Broadway, Sept. 6

At the center of the new Broadway musical Chaplin is a performance so impressive that it manages to bring the term "star making" to mind.  In front of our eyes we see Rob McClure become not only Chaplin but the famous character "The Tramp" that Chaplin portrayed in numerous films and was known the world over for.  While Chaplin isn't the best musical I've ever seen, McClure's performance as well as a first rate cast, a sweeping story and some impressive songs combine to make Chaplin into a musical that I found both enjoyable and touching.  Sure some of the critics weren't as impressed as I was, but then I don't always agree with the critics.

Telling the story of Chaplin from the age of a young boy to his honorary Oscar in 1972 at the age of 83, Chaplin is your typical musicalized rags to riches story of a man who was in the right place at the right time but one with such talent that he became the leading image of the Silent film era.

Rob McClure
The musical's telling of the story might seem simplistic, with the appropriate flashback scenes to highlight key moments in the otherwise forward trajectory, but the story of Chaplin is a rich one, so the simple telling of it means there is no elaborate theatricality to get in its way.  It is a "by the numbers" musical that works. 

Chaplin's life was full of highs and lows, from his young life on the streets of London and the times he and his mother worked in the music halls there, to his star making years in Hollywood that ended up with him not only being the highest paid film star but also allowed him to own his own studio and produce, write and direct his own films.  The musical also shows his later years when the "talkies" threatened Chaplin's way of work, his success of his portrayal of a comical Hitler in The Great Dictator and how his desire to be something of a political presence made his political views to be questioned and ultimately forced him to leave the country.  And while the show doesn't shy away from Chaplin's desire for teenage girls, it doesn't focus too much attention on it and even turns his first three wives's divorce proceedings into a boxing match. 
Rob McClure, Zachary Unger and
Christianne Noll
Added to all of these moments is Chaplin's relationship with his mother and to a much lesser extent, his forever absent father.   While his mother sets the story in action with the excellent opening musical sequence "Look at All the People" where she shows the young Charlie how to observe people around him.  Those moments come into play later when he uses them to become "The Tramp."  But it is really his mother's later years after she has become ill and no longer recognizes Charlie that provide some of the more dramatic elements to the plot.  There are many scenes throughout the show where Charlie's past and the character of his mother and his younger self come into play to shape not only Charlie but the films he makes.  One of the best of those sequences is when Charlie is filming The Kid and we see how his own childhood influenced what ultimately made it onto the screen.

The cast is first rate with McClure giving a performance of many layers.  Whether he is the young Chaplin trying to make his way in Hollywood or the older Chaplin who realizes that the cinema and the world have passed him by, McClure has the appropriate blend of subtlety and realism to his portrayal.   He is a great physical comedian as well.  The most impressive moments come when he is first in Hollywood, afraid he is about to be fired, and draws upon the many people he remembers seeing on the streets of London to concoct the character of "The Tramp."   Using bits of the characters we saw in the opening sequence, he takes parts from each of those people to build upon each other until "The Tramp" is born.  This scene alone will stick with you for a very long time and is perfectly set up and staged by Director Warren Carlyle.   While McClure doesn't have a lot of songs to sing his second act solo "Where Are All The People?" is one that is quite effective.
Rob McClure and Erin Mackey
The supporting cast is perfectly suited for their roles with Christiane Noll especially touching as Chaplin's mother and Erin Mackey, who is engaging and charming, as his final wife, Oona O'Neill, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill.  I thought Wayne Alan Wilcox was quite moving as Chaplin's brother Sydney who became his business manager.  The two of them had some nice moments together and when their relationship hit a rough patch their scenes together were quite effective.   As Hedda Hopper Jenn Colella provides plenty of sass and drive and also gets one of the best songs in the score "All Falls Down" that she belts the heck out of.  Zachary Unger is also quite effective as the young Charlie and also plays the young Jackie Coogan who Chaplin directed to acclaim, even though in a dubious manner in the film The Kid.

The score by Christopher Curtis is his first for the stage, and while some of the songs are more ho-hum, there are several that are very effective including a rousing ending number "This Man" that builds to an emotional choral finale.  The book is by Curtis and Thomas Meehan and while the various moments in Chaplin's life sometimes come across more on the melodramatic side to a certain extent, they somehow make it all come together and works as a musical.

Jenn Colella
While the set design is fairly simple, the use of film images by Jon Driscoll throughout the show is quite effective.  The costume design is based on muted greys and shades of black and white, which ties directly into the silent black and white films.   There is only one bright color used for the majority of the show and that is the red rose that Charlie/The Tramp holds or has on his lapel.  However, there is a burst of color at the end of the show which I found to be extremely effective.

A few quibbles: the second act focuses mainly on Hopper's attacks against Chaplin's political beliefs, which we are led to believe all stemmed from Chaplin's refusal to give her an interview.  This turns Hopper into the major villain of the musical, and makes one believe she was the driving force to make Chaplin leave the US, both points which I don't think are fully accurate.  Also, there is a weird theatrical framing device of having the entire musical as scenes within a film about Chaplin.  This means the scenes start with an ensemble member saying something like "Chaplin, scene 1, the early days" while holding a film clip board, as if the musical is a movie within the show.  However this disappears about 1/3 of the way in and I don't recall any of these scene openings even existing in act two.

But with McClure's break out performance, a fairly stellar supporting cast and a clear storyline, Chaplin is a show I think any fan of Charlie Chaplin or musical theatre will enjoy.  The sad thing is, I'm sure many people under the age of 30 have no idea who Charlie Chaplin even is.  In a year when so many of the film companies are celebrating their 100th anniversaries it is fitting that this musical is on Broadway to allow us a way to remember one of the people who was there almost at the start of it all.

Official Show Site

Highlights from the musical:

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