Putting together a new musical is no easy task, and every season we witness shows that demonstrate the difficulties involved. Yet, even when a musical is flawed, it still can have moments that make it worthwhile and leaves one wishing the entire show could have measured up to its best scenes. I was reminded of all this while watching Chaplin, the uneven new musical based on the life of film star Charlie Chaplin, and the first new musical to open this season.
Chaplin starts well, and for its first half hour, as we see a young Charlie get his early entertainment experience in a British music hall, I thought that, perhaps, Chaplin was better than its mixed to negative reviews indicated. And, after he comes to the United States to work for legendary movie producer Mack Sennett, there is a truly magical moment, as we witness Rob McClure, the talented young performer who plays Chaplin, transform himself into Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. It is one of those scenes that make musicals so special. Unfortunately, the extended sequences that follow fall a bit flat, lacking the spark that can ignite a musical. Then, in Act Two, the musical switches its tone, as Hedda Hopper goes after Chaplin, accusing him of Communist sympathies; the show becomes darker, albeit, at times, more dramatic. One gets the feeling that too much plot is being stuffed into a two-and-a-half-hour musical. And, biographical musicals, especially ones that encompass such a long time period, tend to be overly episodic. All that said, there is still some magic left, as Chaplin concludes with Charlie’s return to the United States in 1972 to receive his honorary Oscar, and the show’s closing moments are quite touching and satisfying.
Among Chaplin’s other assets is a stylish production, overseen by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, which includes, until the final scene, a black-and-white color scheme that works, considering we are watching a show about the silent film era. Carlyle effectively intersperses movie clips with the live action and certainly deserves credit, along with Rob McClure, for the transformation scene. McClure gives a true star performance, brilliantly capturing all elements of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. McClure also brings legitimate charm to his characterization. It is not his fault that the Chaplin character is never totally developed. We see his fixations on his mother in Act One, and we watch his stubbornness and even arrogance in Act Two, but we never really know what drives him or what Chaplin was really like. There is not enough presented for the audience to fully invest in Charlie and care about what happens to him throughout the musical. That is one of the failings of the book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan; Meehan is one of the best librettists around, but his work comes up a little short here. Curtis also wrote the music and lyrics, and there are some attractive melodies, some bland ones, and none that on first hearing are memorable. He has written a solid 11-o’clock song for McClure, “Where Are All the People,” and a moving closing song, “This Man.”
The supporting cast does fine work; Christiane Noll is lovely as Chaplin’s mother; Wayne Alan Wilcox is strong as Chaplin’s brother and business manager, Sydney; Jenn Colella is always a welcomed presence, and, playing Hedda Hopper, she gets one of Curtis’s better songs with Act Two’s “All Falls Down.” Zachary Unger is winning as the child Chaplin, and Erin Mackey brings a delightful warmth and sweetness when she arrives midway in Act Two, playing Oona O’Neill, daughter of the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill, who would become Chaplin’s last wife and the love of his life.
The performances, the production, and the better scenes had me wishing that more of Chaplin lived up to the show’s best elements. The creators have never figured out the tone they wanted to set in this musical, so Chaplin ultimately proves to be too uneven and episodic to become a fully satisfying musical. The highlights hint that the potential was there, but too often unrealized. At least Chaplin ends on a fulfilling note, and the journey to get there has its interesting and occasionally rewarding moments. - James Miller
Chaplin is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater at 243 West 47th St. in Manhattan.
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.