To point out any failings in “Chaplin,” the Broadway musical, almost seems cruel. The show, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is not only technically perfect, with a flawless cast, it’s also the first musical I’ve seen in ages that gives us what we used to expect when we went to the theater; sharp direction, legitimate performers, and that long-lost Broadway art called dancing. Should this turn into a hit, Christie Brinkley and Perez Hilton won’t be taking over the leading roles, and it’s clear the producers have risked a premature closing rather than sell out to the jukebox craze.
Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin gives a tremendous, elevated performance, successfully aging from teenager to old man, and showing us Chaplin Little Tramp moves that are so good you’re not sure if the plethora of film clips in the background are him or the original. He’s not a Hollywood name (Funny Girl, can you hear me?), and casting the person who’s actually right for the role is a little secret Broadway almost always forgets. Check out Once and Book of Mormon for other examples of talent-over-title casting, then take note that both won the Tony for Best Musical.
The show, which is not based on the 1992 movie of the same name, takes its cue from operatic storylines like Evita, and gives us a trimmed-down, dark Cinderella story of Chaplin’s remarkable life.
Born in poverty in London, his father died of drink while his mother, Hannah (Christiane Noll), was institutionalized before her son became a star. After he arrives in Hollywood, stardom comes quickly, and he brings along his older brother, Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox), as his business manager. Fame begets money, money begets women and wives and children, director of his own studio begets accusations of Communism, and a made-up paternity scandal begets exile—while the facts of the false fatherhood story are true, the case of the paternity suit and his subsequent move to Switzerland are summed up in one number.
Here’s the big problem: Many of the songs, by Christopher Curtis, are not particularly memorable, either in melody or lyrics. While that’s not news on Broadway, for this show you yearn for an amazing score. Drag queens don’t lip-sync, tumblers don’t fly, and there are no puppets or chandeliers in sight. The black-and-white set, a brilliant piece of artistry that involves Set Designer Beowulf Boritt, Lighting Designer Ken Billington, and Video/Projector Designer Jon Driscoll, is so sharp, along with Director and Choreographer Warren Carlyle’s clown-meets-Chaplin-meets-balletic numbers, that you want the songs to be as worthy as the rest of the production. But it’s a musical, folks. When you break the eggs you better find yolks.
For the record, there are two stellar musical numbers, both in the second act. Jenn Colella does a stand-out job as a ruthless Hedda Hopper, and kinda knocks the audience dead with “All Falls Down,” her Kander and Ebb-ish sex as a weapon ode to destroying The Tramp. The second, “Where Are All the People,” is sung by McClure, and it’s a toss between watching and hearing a zinger from Les Miserable and any of Hugh Jackman’s one-man-show-stoppers.
The rest of the supporting cast all excel in their respective roles, and are, for the most part, given solid material. Wilcox plays straight to Chaplin, yet has enough charisma to shine throughout. He’s matched by Noll, who’s a tragic, Dickensian character here, and as emphatic as that author makes his doomed heroines. Erin Mackey is a solid, loveable, last wife for Chaplin (the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, she and Chaplin had eight children, and were married until his death in 1977). She’s burdened by coming into the story so late, and crooning one of the least-memorable ballads, also very late in the game. Praise also needs to be given to Zachary Unger, who plays a young Chaplin, and, more memorably, Jackie Coogan, in a terrific scene that manages to show the star’s dark side, and the sinister nature of Hollywood and movie making all in one shot.
Chaplin, mind you, might have flaws, but Chaplin’s conceit is one of admiration and respect for one of the 20th century’s most beloved movie stars. The Broadway musical Chaplin has flaws too, and perhaps they’ll be box-office tragic, but its conceit is also one of admiration and respect: It’s a tribute to the Great American Broadway Musical, which most everyone will agree is still one of our greatest treasures.
For more information visit www.telecharge.com. Photos: Joan Marcus.