September 19, 2012

"Chaplin" is More Flatfooted than It Should Be

People have been so eager to badmouth the new musical Chaplin that opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre last week that I’ve been trying to figure out why they’ve been so hostile towards it. Because this certainly isn’t the worst show that any of us have seen. Indeed, there are several things that might recommend it.

The show tracks the career of the great silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, whose Little Tramp character remains an instantly recognizable icon almost 50 years after Chaplin made his last film and whose personal life was just as flamboyantly theatrical.

Just some of the highlights include his born-in-a-trunk beginnings to British music hall performers, his stubborn refusal to switch to talking films, his penchant for under-aged girls (three of his four wives were in their teens when he married them) his self-imposed exile from the U.S. after being accused of having communist sympathies and his dramatic return 20 years later to receive an honorary Oscar.

Another plus is the show’s elegant black and white design. Beowulf Boritt did the set and Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, who died this past July, did the costumes and both cleverly mimic the stylized look of silent films.   

Meanwhile, lighting designer Ken Billington and video designer Jon Driscoll have been just as nimble at incorporating film sequences into the show.  Some are clips from Chaplin movies but others were filmed specifically for this show and it’s the highest compliment to say that you can’t always tell which is which.

And that brings us to the show’s single best attribute: a star-is-born performance by the young actor Rob McClure.  Posters and the Playbill boast that the show is “Introducing Rob McClure as ‘Charlie Chaplin’” but some of us were lucky enough to have spotted him earlier. 

Last year McClure starred in the Encores! production of  Where’s Charley? and was totally delightful in the title role long identified with another grand old clown, Ray Bolger.  Even I, usually a grinch when it comes to audience-participation, joined in the sing-along McClure lead of the ditty “Once in Love With Amy.”

Now, McClure is even more winning as Chaplin. It helps that he looks a bit like the comedian and he’s got down all Chaplin's trademark gestures: the bowlegged walk, the jauntily popping shoulders, the coy tilt of the head.   

But this is a performance that is as emotionally resourceful as it is physically agile. McClure makes Chaplin a real-flesh-and-blood genius: someone who was probably difficult to live with but impossible to resist.

Kudos to the producers for going with him instead of some big-name, but less well-suited star. McClure may not have the ineffable charisma that Chaplin possessed but who could?  This is still a performance that should be remembered at Tony time.  (Click here to read a piece about how he built his performance.)

And yet, I can understand why Chaplin has scored just a C on StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the top New York critics (click here to read what some of them had to say).  Here, in brief, is why I think we may all feel so let down by the show:

The book: Predictably, it’s the biggest problem. Theatrical newcomer Christopher Curtis (he seems to be a cabaret guy who has written TV theme songs and studied at Disney Animation’s musicals workshop) and Broadway vet Thomas Meehan (he’s won Tonys for the books of Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) have cobbled together a story that simultaneously offers too much and too little. 

The book tries to cover Chaplin’s entire life right up to his death, at 88, in 1977. So everything has to move along at the fast-paced clip of one of those silent movie two-reelers. 

Curtis and Meehan try to add depth by larding in some sibling rivalry with Chaplin’s older half-brother and sometime manager Sydney and by making their mother Hannah, who spent most of her life in and out of mental asylums, the cause of Chaplin’s almost manic drive to succeed.

But they skip over his problematic love life (perhaps in deference to the Chaplin family) and they give short-shrift to his political beliefs, which here are played as more of a grudge match with the conservative gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Like so many musicals today, this one lacks focus.  And that makes it hard to say interested.

The music: Curtis did both the music and the lyrics. And they’re OK but only in a generic kind of way. A couple of the ballads drew loud applause the night my sister Joanne and I saw the show and what passes for the title tune still echoes in my ear, in part because it’s reprised so many times throughout the show. But the music doesn’t put a distinctive stamp on its interpretation of Chaplin’s world.

•Our expectations:  I suspect that the reason the disappointment has been so widespread and so bitter is that this show had so much potential and has so much talent both onstage and behind the curtain.  We theater lovers wanted it to be more, to pay proper tribute to its title character, to open this new theater season with a bang.  What we got isn’t as underwhelming as some are saying but it isn’t enough either.  

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