The new musical “Chaplin” opens with the sight of the Little Tramp balanced on a tightrope high above the stage. It’s a fitting metaphor for the show itself — a wobbly, high stakes attempt to avoid gravity. Guess what happens? Gravity wins.
What opened Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre tries hard to be something to everyone and in the process becomes less than anything. The great Charlie Chaplin deserves better.
It’s technically a musical, but one without a single memorable song. It’s also a play that veers into the psychological — apparently Chaplin had more mommy issues than Oedipus — but the drama is interrupted by silly dance breaks. It’s another hammy attempt on a Broadway stage to describe a famous life through the lens of a camera, a device that even its creators seem half-hearted about.
Rob McClure in the title role certainly deserves more than this to work with. He has clearly put his heart and soul into playing Chaplin — he not only sings and acts with feeling, he also tightropes, roller-skates blindfolded, does a backflip without spilling any of his drink, and waddles with a cane like a man who has studied hours of flickering footage.
But save for one sublime scene in which the various inspirations behind Chaplin’s decision to embody the Little Tramp is revealed, the show McClure leads is equal parts flat, overwrought and tiresome.
The story by Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis is a linear, two-hour biography that takes us from Chaplin’s poor childhood in London to his staggering stardom and then self-imposed exile thanks to accusations of un-American activities. Spinning newspaper headlines projected on the back wall baby feed you the plot in case you doze off.
Professionally, Chaplin confronts the challenge of talkies and then color. Personally, he confronts his own reckless fondness for young women and inability to get past being abandoned by his parents.
It touches on his relationship with his brother (Wayne Alan Wilcox) several lovers (including a sweet Erin Mackey as his third wife, Oona O’Neill) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella, another bright spot), who destroys Chaplin by painting him a Commie.
“I’m gonna wipe the smile/From the famous little clown,” she sings. If she had a mustache, she’d twirl it.
All the while, there are excruciating flashbacks of a young Chaplin begging for his mother’s love from a valiant Christiane Noll. But then, suddenly, a bunch of Chaplins in little mustaches will hit the stage to dance furiously while balancing bowler hats on canes. All night, the show zooms incoherently from anguish to zany. The nadir has to be a mock boxing match between Chaplin and his ex-wives. Nothing funnier than domestic violence, huh?
The musical ends with Chaplin getting a standing-ovation at the 1972 Academy Awards. “I’ve come to realize that life is not a movie,” he concludes in words he never actually said during the real show. “You can’t go back and edit it.” Such arrogance to reality is unforgivable. It’s also pretty trite. Someone needs to go back and edit this.
So ponderous is the staging — the director and choreographer is Warren Carlyle — that it took a full 30 minutes for the first real cheer to emerge from the audience. For a story about a man who delighted millions without having the benefit of sound? Unacceptable.
Add to this unhappy story the fact that Curtis, who also wrote the music and lyrics, has been unable to create anything approximating an original, hummable tune.
In the last, predictable scene, a child playing Chaplin meets the adult Chaplin and gives him a rose. The circle is complete. All is good in the world. “The world’s bound to love him/When they see the Little Tramp,” the cast sings.
Not if the world see this.
In the musical “Chaplin,” sets and costumes come in black and white. Unfortunately, so does the storytelling in this cut-and-dried bio about the complicated silent-film legend Charlie Chaplin.
The book by Thomas Meehan (“Annie”) and Christopher Curtis is a simple chronology — rags to riches to exile — that could have used more imagination and a stronger point of view. Curtis’ songs, much-reprised, don’t give the show much lift either. His credits include Discovery Channel theme songs.
Despite modest material, Rob McClure (“Avenue Q”) gives a nimble star turn as guided by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle (“Finian’s Rainbow”).
Beginning in London, the action follows young Charlie (Zachary Unger), whose childhood goes from hard-knock to worse when mother (Christiane Noll), a music-hall entertainer, falls ill.
Before her breakdown, she schooled Charlie in the art of observation. It comes through in the song “Look at All the People” and, at least in this musical, becomes the key to his screen success.
It translates into a fine sequence in which the adult Chaplin (McClure) cobbles together his signature Tramp alter ego and drives it all the way to fame and fortune. But happiness is still elusive for him.
The second half revolves around Hedda Hopper (a sterling Jenn Colella), who’s miffed about Chaplin’s refusal to do an interview. The hat-wearing gossip hound sets out to unmask a man who makes everyone laugh as a womanizing Communist in the juicy song “All Falls Down.”
It’s ironic that Hopper should get the show’s best number. Then again, this Chaplin, whose rough edges have been sanded, tends to be passive. Three wives whack him in divorce court. His brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox) leaves him. Fourth wife Oona (Erin Mackey) saves and soothes him.
As it happens, it’s not the first musical called “Chaplin.” In 1983, one starring Anthony Newley closed out of town. This new Broadway arrival began at the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival and ran in 2010 with the title “Limelight” at the La Jolla Playhouse in California.
The way “Chaplin” stands now, it’s modestly entertaining. But in a story in which Chaplin often talks about the magic of the flickers, one yearns for more flickers of magic.
It’s not a great sign when you leave a musical thinking more about the visuals than the songs — which is exactly what happens at Broadway’s new “Chaplin.”
The show about the silent-film icon is packed with so many biographical details that it seems like a PowerPoint presentation with songs. But hey, at least it looks good!
The stylish project’s sets and projections are all white, black or gray. Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz’s gorgeous monochromatic costumes ground the various points of the stretched-out timeline, which starts in London in 1894 and goes all the way to the Oscars of 1972.
Instead of zeroing in on a key period, book writers Thomas Meehan (“The Producers,” “Hairspray”) and Christopher Curtis (who also did the serviceable score) went for the big picture. And so the biomusical packs eight decades into 2 1/2 hours.
We follow Charlie Chaplin (Rob McClure) from his youth in English vaudeville through his Hollywood debut with Mack Sennett (Michael McCormick), his rise to fame as a highly paid star, milestones like “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush,” and the post-WW II lefty politics that led to a feud with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (the excellent Jenn Colella, who pretty much hijacks the second act).
It’s a handful, and still there’s more, because a musical needs a love story.
The show tries hard to present Chaplin as hounded by gold-digging women, but it can’t entirely sugarcoat his pervy taste for teenagers. He married his fourth and last wife, Oona — Eugene O’Neill’s daughter — when she was 18 and he was 54.
If this reads like a recap of a famous man’s bullet-point path, it’s because “Chaplin” is just that.
At least things move along zippily under the direction of Warren Carlyle, who also choreographed. Every once in a while he cleverly incorporates famous images — like the dinner rolls so memorably used in “The Gold Rush” — but there’s a dearth of showstopping numbers.
The agile McClure captures Chaplin’s physical trademarks — particularly the Little Tramp’s duck gait — and he’s very likable, but things move too fast for him to flesh out his character. So he tries to sound convincing on pseudo-introspective comments like “Everybody wants to be me. Except me.”
Meehan and Curtis’ main idea is to use their subject’s mother (Christiane Noll) as a through line illuminating his torments and hang-ups.
A performer herself, Hannah Chaplin became afflicted with dementia, and was committed to an asylum. The show argues that, in a way, she haunted her son his entire life. Unfortunately, this seems like a pop-psychological gimmick — bad mother, bad! — and we tire of Hannah’s constant interruptions.
When Charlie, much older, sings “Where are the people that once loved me?” the pathos gets a little much — even if the real Chaplin wasn’t adverse to sentimentality. Maybe Buster Keaton would have been a better Broadway choice for our times.
The question arises more than once during the soppy “Chaplin: The Musical,” which opened on Monday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Most obviously and extravagantly, there’s the first-act finale in which our identity-challenged hero, the pioneer movie star Charlie Chaplin (Rob McClure), finds himself surrounded by dancers dressed, as he is, as the Little Tramp, his on-screen alter ego.
While Mr. McClure is often center stage in this sequence, you still have to look hard to distinguish the real from the mock. There are also occasions in which Mr. McClure is hard to spot in a crowd that is not populated by look-alikes. More broadly, though, this sour-smell-of-success story, which features songs by Christopher Curtis and a book by Mr. Curtis and Thomas Meehan, is steeped in a sense that Chaplin the person, as opposed to Chaplin the fabled silent comedian, has gone missing in action, devoured by a swarm of man-eating clichés.
This is the kind of show in which the leading man says to one of his several leading ladies: “You didn’t want to marry me. You just wanted to marry Charlie Chaplin.” And in which the star’s 11 o’clock number begins with the lyrics, “Once upon a time, I had the world upon a string/Once they stood in line to see my face upon a screen.”
To the show’s dubious credit, there is no conscious camp in such moments, which were threadbare back in the days of “Valley of the Dolls.” Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, “Chaplin: The Musical” takes itself very seriously as it delivers the unsurprising news that a clown cries. Designed largely in shades of gray by Beowulf Boritt (sets) and Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), “Chaplin” presents life at the top as “la vie en gris.”
Chaplin, of course, took himself seriously. He should have. He was one of the most significant and influential artists in both the history of film and of international stardom. Almost a century after he made his debut in movies, his profoundly wistful Little Tramp remains a recognizable image. Even for those who know that image only out of context, it conjures up an affecting blend of forlorn pathos and comedy triumphant.
As Walter Kerr wrote in “The Silent Clowns,” describing the 1921 film “The Kid,” Chaplin allowed his audiences “to see and to feel what is realistically distressing about life through the magnifying glass, and only through the magnifying glass, of humor.” Scenes that might read mawkish in other hands feel fresh, piquant and hilariously sad.
Kerr goes on to dissect the opening gag in “The Kid,” in which the Little Tramp, finding an abandoned baby in an alley, immediately looks upward to see where it came from. That may not sound funny, but it is on screen. And it is onstage when Mr. McClure skillfully replicates the moment in a moviemaking sequence.
The laughter that erupts at the Barrymore has relief in it; it’s honest laughter. The same sound is heard during a scene inspired by “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin’s daring 1940 spoof of Adolf Hitler. In both cases, we’re looking through Chaplin’s magic magnifying glass, and its focus hasn’t dimmed.
The lens through which we see most of “Chaplin,” though, is blurred, as if with Vaseline. In his 1964 autobiography Chaplin made it clear that he had little use for most interpretations of his psyche, whether high-brow (via Freud or W. Somerset Maugham) or low (the gutter press and fan magazines). So I shudder to think what he might have made of the psychiatrist’s couch he’s been plopped on for “Chaplin: The Musical.”
Borrowing from concept musicals of the past several decades — including “Nine,” “Chicago” and “Cabaret” — this production uses the circus (as well as the movies and the nightclub) as a central metaphor. Our first view of Mr. McClure finds him on a tightrope, in Little Tramp drag, while the people who counted in his life call out to him from below, “What’cha gonna do when it all falls down?” They could just as easily be singing the Stephen Sondheim lyric “How did you get to be here?”
In any case, we soon learn the answers. Flashback! It’s the East End of London at the turn of the 20th century, and little Charlie (the immensely appealing Zachary Unger) is being encouraged by Hanna (Christiane Noll), his loving but mentally unstable mother, to observe the passers-by on the streets.
“Look at all the people,” she sings, in a melody that evaporates as you listen to it. “Then look inside the heart.” She adds helpfully, “There you’ll find the story/And then you can play your part.”
As it is, Charlie remains haunted — in song and ad nauseum — by the mother he loves but is ashamed of. He soldiers on through many flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, and movies-within-movies-within-the-musical, marking rungs on the wobbly ladder to the top: the London music hall, the Hollywood of Mack Sennett (an underused Michael McCormick), his own moviemaking empire. It turns out that the whole show is a movie, Chaplin’s story of his life, which he screens for Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey), his fourth and last wife, and the only one who loves him for himself.
What with all this metamovie stuff — and the arty gray color scheme, which extends to the makeup — it’s not always possible to know where you are in relation to time or reality. Yet a stolidly conventional heart beats beneath these airy trappings: a by-the-book rags-to-riches-to-loneliness saga, underscored by vaporous music (which includes, I swear, celestial choruses of “aahs”) and vaguely period dances that go on forever without going anywhere.
The cast, which includes Wayne Alan Wilcox as Chaplin’s abidingly loyal big brother and Jim Borstelmann as his long-suffering aide-de-camp, mostly gets lost in the mist. A revved-up Jenn Colella, as a nasty, witch-hunting Hedda Hopper, manages to make the sharpest impression, but then meanies often do.
Mr. McClure, a relative unknown when he created this role two years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, does a lovely impersonation of the Little Tramp that captures the heartbreaking grace in that character’s embattled dignity. Delivering the anguished lines of the self-destructive egotist that Chaplin became, he perversely tends to fade into the gray. This may be a mercy, given the lines he has to say. It’s hard not to sympathize with the character who tells him, “I miss the days when you didn’t speak.”
There is an odd but altogether deserved billing in the program for "Chaplin," the new biographical musical about the silent movie icon. Instead of merely printing the name of the show's lead actor, the copy proclaims: "Introducing Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin."
Well, hello, Rob McClure. Welcome to the show that's going to make you a Broadway star. It's hard to guess how long the musical -- with its excellent stagecraft, but a badly lopsided book and a banal score -- will be around. Whatever the problems of the material, however, this is a performance that lasts.
McClure, who has mostly had replacement and understudy jobs, doesn't just replicate the waddle and pratfalls of Chaplin's little tramp. He doesn't just do a back somersault without spilling a glass of wine or tap dance on roller skates or walk a tightrope. He does all that without apparent effort, but he also has a pungent voice that pings and he embodies more than seven decades of Chaplin's life with a focused, altogether believable mix of gravity and light.
What the creators want us to know about Chaplin is far less clear. The conflicted book, co-written by Thomas Meehan and composer/lyricist Christopher Curtis, moves briskly but redundantly from British music hall to movie magic and Chaplin's less admirable love affairs.
Except for foreshadowing by a song nagging "whatcha gonna do when it all falls down?" the plot has no tension or arc and gives no hint that, way too late into the second act, the musical-comedy turns dark with blacklisting and exile. It is then that Curtis' songs, simple tunes with nursery-rhyme lyrics, get heavy with love-song twaddle and musical swatches of "Cabaret" and "A Chorus Line."
The rest of the big cast is very fine, especially Zachary Unger as Charlie in his Dickensian boyhood and Christiane Noll as the young mother whose madness and perceptiveness haunt Charlie's life in deftly-wrought flashbacks.
Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle moves the story from late 19th century British music hall through to early Hollywood with remarkable integration of live and film images. And the whole production, with nonstop changes of stylish costumes, finds impressive shadings in black and white -- with just a recurring red rose.
McClure does the rest.
There are surely few harder-working men in show business right now than Rob McClure, the immensely likeable star of the new Broadway musical Chaplin (**½ out of four).
In the title role, that of film legend Charlie Chaplin, McClure begins the show literally walking a high wire. For more than two hours, he is the dominant figure onstage, aging from a teenager to an octogenarian while alternately channeling his character's unique genius for physical comedy and singing his guts out.
As if that's not enough, Chaplin's leading man must also traverse a book, by veteran librettist Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Annie, Hairspray) and Christopher Curtis, with enough mawkish melodrama to fuel a dozen silent-film parodies.
It's this last aspect that ultimately sinks what might have been an exciting new work, and still manages to be, in substantial chunks, an entertaining one. Curtis, who also wrote the music and lyrics, and Meehan make an earnest attempt to get inside the head and heart of their subject, even using the tools of his trade: Chaplin's life unfolds in a series of emulated film takes, and the action is enhanced at points by archival clips.
But even while trumpeting Chaplin's accomplishments, the musical, which opened Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, reduces one of the most distinctive talents of the 20th century to a sentimental figure largely defined by his relationships with women. Chaplin's unstable mother, Hannah, is a major presence. Played by a sad-eyed Christiane Noll, she haunts her son repeatedly, sometimes accompanied by a little boy — Chaplin as a lad, sweetly played by Zachary Unger.
Then there are Chaplin's first three wives, all actresses. The first, Mildred Harris, is portrayed by Hayley Podschun as a calculating Lolita. The latter two don't fare much better in a sequence that has them pounding him in a boxing ring, then dancing around with moneybags representing their generous divorce settlements.
Once he finally finds happiness with the pure-hearted Oona O'Neill — played by the winsome Erin Mackey, whose limpid soprano is a musical highlight of the production — Chaplin must still contend with Hedda Hopper, who resents his progressive politics and reluctance to play the Hollywood publicity game. Jenn Colella presents the über-gossip columnist all too capably as a cartoon villainess.
Luckily, there are moments of levity and more direct nods to Chaplin's artistic inspiration, and director/choreographer Warren Christopher serves both with a deft mix of passion and playfulness. In The Look-a-Like Contest, the number closing Act One, McClure's Chaplin watches, fascinated and a bit terrified, as a chorus line of dancers dressed like him ape the clownish movements he has managed with such agility and charm.
It's a delightful routine — and a sobering one, when you consider how celebrity obsession has mushroomed in our era. One only wishes that Chaplin would achieve that balance of wit and unforced poignance more often.
The most treacherous part of producing a biomusical about an iconic performer is finding an actor who can convincingly handle the role. The producers of "Chaplin" -- this fall's first Broadway offering -- have passed that difficult test, with relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp. But they have come up all thumbs, alas, in the writing and staging departments. In the hands of composer-lyricist Chris Curtis (who has penned theme songs for the Discovery Channel) and Curtis' co-librettist Tom Meehan ("Annie," "The Producers"), Chaplin's remarkable life veers into cliche.
Let's start with the good, which in this case amounts to McClure. The actor's performance in the title role of last season's "Where's Charley" (as part of the annual Encores! series) offered a compelling reason to look forward to "Chaplin." He is not a carbon copy of Charlie (no one's likely to be), but he provides the essence of Chaplin, both as the tramp and as the older filmmaker without mustache. McClure clowns effectively but also conveys the intelligence and the impatience that drove Chaplin. The act-one transformation scene, in which the panto comic devises his film persona, is especially effective.
Elsewhere, though, the show's creatives have transformed Charlie's tale into just another Hollywood story of stardom today, oblivion tomorrow. "What'cha gonna do when it all falls down?" goes the theme song, which sets the tone.
According to the librettists, Chaplin's big problem was that he slept with too many actresses. This doesn't ring true; McClure's Chaplin seems a thoroughly decent chap until we are suddenly told in act two that he is a lascivious rake. His career is destroyed, in this rendition, simply because he refuses to give an interview to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella). Miffed, she brands him a commie and has the governm ent send him into exile.
The authors paint Paulette Goddard, the accomplished actress who co-starred in two of Chaplin's best films, married three distinguished men of the arts and left $20 million to NYU when she died in 1990, as a teenaged golddigger. They also portray Chaplin as a man desperate for children, thoroughly ignoring his sons with early wife Lita Grey, one of whom starred in two of Chaplin's films.
Colella's cruel villainess turns up in the second act, and the actress gives a performance that attracts cheers despite underwritten material. Christiane Noll is effective as Mama Chaplin, although she seems hearty until suddenly lapsing into insanity; Michael McCormick makes an entertaining Mack Sennett, and Jim Borstelmann adds a touch of pathos as Alf Reeves, the star's loyal production manager.
The real Chaplin was unique, Hollywood's only successful actor-director-writer-producer-composer ever. Curtis and Meehan treat him like one in a long line of once-talented has-beens. "Everybody wants to be me except me," Charlie complains in the first act. "Where are all the people who once loved me?" he complains in the second.
Physical production is spare: In order to stage continuous Hollywood parties on an all-but-bare stage, far more than four dancing couples are required. Lighting designer Ken Billington comes off best, with a couple of startlingly impressive moments, and the physical concept of a black-and-white palette through most of the evening, save for one red rose, is intriguing.
One has to wonder, though, whether there was anything worth salvaging besides the performance of McClure, who starred in an earlier version of the show two years ago in La Jolla. Carlyle, who did mighty fine last season with "Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway," does not impress here.
One lesson to be learned: Having 12 dancers in tramp costumes with mustaches do the famous "dinner roll dance" from "The Gold Rush" is not likely to be 12 times as effective as when the real Charlie did it.