Charlie Chaplin certainly lived a life that would seem a natural one to be dramatized as a musical. Born in London in poverty, the son of a mentally ill music hall singer and an absent alcoholic father, his rise to stardom as the brilliant comedian and star of the silent screen is the classic rags to riches storyline. Mr. Chaplin's complex personal life and the political beliefs which led to his exile from the United States during the height of the Red Scare is reminiscent of the classical tragic hero brought to ruin by his character flaws. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Chaplin: The Musical tries to channel both scenarios and therein lies its own flaws. For despite the marvelous performance of Rob McClure in the title role Chaplin: The Musical is suffering from an identity crisis.
In many ways the first act of the play brings memories of another fanciful biographical musical, Barnum. The audience is greeted with a film projection of the famous Little Tramp which seques into our hero balancing upon a tightrope high above the stage. Designed to resemble the films of the silent era with a color scheme of black, white and gray that includes the set design of Beowulf Boritt, the costumes designed by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz and even the make-up designed by Angelina Avallone the audience is immersed into a well-thought out iconic look that is nostalgic of the time. The first act tracks Charlie Chaplin's rise to fame framed in several scenes as if his life were a film. One of the frustrating parts of this production is that using film clapperboards to announce the scenes is only used sporadically which unfortunately foreshadows the inconsistant style of this well-meaning show.
There are several excellent performances in this first half of the tale of Chaplin's life. Christiane Noll is poignant as Charlie's melancholy mother, Hannah and her performance has an appropriate haunting quality. Zachary Unger has grave presence for one so young in his dual roles as the Young Charlie and Charlie's famous child co-star Jackie Coogan. Wayne Alan Wilcox as Charlie's older brother Sydney Chaplin is the rock steady support for his talented and reckless brother. Michael McCormack gives us a glimpse of the filmmaking on a shoe-string budget that was Keystone Pictures as the impressario Mack Sennett. The audience is charmed as we witness the birth of the Little Tramp and the immense popularity of one of Hollywood's most famous early stars.
Yet, act two, which covers the downfall of Charlie Chaplin caused by both his womanizing with women, and let's face it teenage girls, as well as his sympathy for socialist and communist causes that led to the revoking of his visa in 1952 seems like a completely different play. The play runs a brisk two hours and fifteen minutes plus intermission and yet act two feels bogged down by sluggish pacing. The tone is naturally more somber, yet Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan's book feels slight to the potentially rich material. The age of Chaplin's first wife is fleetingly mentioned (seventeen when she met him), and his first three marriages are treated with as little care as the boxing match that represents the financial support that the three women received upon their divorces. Mr. Chaplin is depicted as longing to be a father, yet the musical implies that he only had children with his fourth and final wife, Oona O'Neill, which is fine for an artistic choice but is not reality.
Similarly the crusade of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with scene stealing verve by Jenn Colella, is made to seem the petty revenge of someone angry that the great star Charlie Chaplin won't consent to appear on her radio program. Hedda is given a tantalizing motivation when she says of the Hitler-spoofing film The Great Dictator that she wonders about the reaction to the film by the good German people. This is a very provocative statement implying that Ms. Hopper might have fascist sympathies but it is a mere throw-a-way line. The late in act two romance of Charlie and the charming Erin Mackay as Charlie's fourth wife, Oona O'Neill feels like a brief respite from the drive to hit all the biographical points so that we can reach the drama of Charlie's late in life redemption.
This is not to say that the musical is not worth the price of admission. Seeing Rob McClure in the title role is reason enough to see this ambitious, flawed musical. Mr. McClure has spark and charisma and when he transforms himself into the iconic Little Tramp it is a moment that well deserves any applause that it might gain from the audience. The title role is a physically demanding one and Mr. McClure has gamely mastered the staging challenges of his director and choreographer Warren Carlyle. Whether recreating scenes from Chaplin's films, balancing on a high wire or tap dancing on roller skates, Mr. McClure is definitely a star actor on the verge of Broadway success.
Chaplin: The Musical is being performed on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.chaplinbroadway.com or telecharge.com.