Oscar E Moore

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CHAPLIN, the musical or a hundred shades of grey

September 14th, 2012 by Oscar E Moore

The road to Broadway for the new musical CHAPLIN which originally was titled BEHIND THE LIMELIGHT (New York Musical Theatre Festival 2006 book, music and lyrics Christopher Curtis) and then going on to the La Jolla Playhouse (where Thomas Meehan was hired to co-author the book) has been at the very least rocky with as many highs and lows that the real life Charlie Chaplin experienced with his rapid rise to fame and fortune and then being reviled for assumed Communist activities resulting in his fleeing the USA where he made millions as “The Little Tramp” for Switzerland.

Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle along with his expert design team (Beowulf Boritt set – Amy Clark/Martin Pakledinaz costumes – Ken Billington lighting and Jon Driscoll projections) have come up with a “concept” for this production running at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre that is both clever and sometimes distracting.

We are witnessing the making of a black and white movie of Charlie Chaplin’s life – in which the sets, costumes and make-up are all in varying shades of grey.  What first impresses soon becomes drab causing this charming musical to bog down in its subdued and solemn color palette.

There are moments of brilliance (especially the creation of “The Little Tramp” by Chaplin and the boxing match with Chaplin’s three wives) but they are surrounded by that sad, repetitive color grey that makes CHAPLIN difficult to fully embrace.  Repetitive can also describe some scenes and songs in Act I.

Were it not for its leading man Rob McClure – who should rightfully have his name above the title as star of the show – CHAPLIN might not make it.  He is “The Little Tramp” and Charlie – two distinct personalities of the man which always bothered the real Chaplin – at least according to this scenario.

The charming Mr. McClure walks a tightrope.  He roller skates.  Plays a violin.  He throws a cream pie in the face of Mack Sennett (Michael McCormick).  He can sing and dance, do pratfalls and has the mannerisms of Chaplin down pat.  And he is funny.  And touching, especially in Act II where he has a powerhouse number “Where Are All the People” that shows real passion and character after being hounded by Hedda Hopper (a fierce Jenn Colella) the witch huntress of all witch huntresses.

Zachary Unger as the young Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan (who tugs at your heart strings) is spectacular and almost pulls the rug out from under McClure.

As Sydney Chaplin – brother and business manager – Wayne Alan Wilcox gives a steadfast and very heartfelt performance always trying to have Charlie visit their mother Hannah (Christine Noll) suffering from dementia who is annoyingly ever present throughout the show giving Charlie cause to feel remorse, guilt and inspiration for his films.

The love of this womanizer’s later life, Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey) accompanies Chaplin back to the States to receive his honorary Academy Award with a most touching finale “This Man.”

This production of CHAPLIN is entertaining but not half as much as BEHIND THE LIMELIGHT which I thought was brilliant.  What I remember most was the beautiful way the story unfolded with songs that were character driven and which furthered the plot as opposed to one production number after another and the character of Edna Purviance, lover and star of his films, that has been cut.  She sang a most memorable “Somebody’s Going to Love Me More” – that I truly missed.

www.ChaplinBroadway.com Photos: Joan Marcus

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