Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On the Radar: Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin

When I was compiling material for last week's "TheatreScene," two shows having regional tryouts with Broadway aspirations really caught my interest.  The first of those opened Sunday at the La Jolla Playhouse: Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin.  (The other show will be featured soon!)

Broadway has certainly had its share of successes with biographical musicals - George M!, Funny Girl, The Will Rogers Follies and, currently, Jersey Boys.  All of them are about entertainers and what made them work is a subject of certain charisma, charm, appeal, and enough scandal/controversy/tragedy to make their personal drama at least as interesting as the entertainment they provided in real life.

And so it would seem that Charlie Chaplin would be the perfect choice for a musical.  His life - several wives, a penchant for under aged girls, his immigration to America, his eventual exile for being branded "un-American", and his triumphant return to collect an honorary Oscar before his death - was at least as interesting as what he was famous for.  To that end, Chaplin was a brilliant comedian (his Little Tramp is still as iconic as Marilyn Monroe over the subway grate or Lucy's fire red hair) and a pioneer in front of and behind the camera.

Charlie Chaplin and the women in his life.
(Jake Evan Schwenke, Ashley Brown, Robert McClure and Jenn Colella)

With a book by master Thomas Meehan, one would expect a streamlining, but with an affection and respect for the subject while being vastly entertaining.  Granted this is only the World Premiere, and lots of work could still happen, but so far of the reviews I read (HERE and HERE) complained about the uneven and wide range of the book.  Interestingly, the score by Christopher Curtis barely gets a mention.  The production stills certainly match what has been written about the cinematic/theatrical style of the direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger.  The lighting design by Paul Gallo, and the scenic design by Alexander Dodge certainly looks interesting and theatrical.

The Limelight Company

Naturally, the cast interests me, even though should the piece go anywhere from here, it seems unlikely all of them would make it to the end of the rainbow.  The current cast boasts some of my favorite 21st Century Broadway actors: Ashley Brown, Jenn Colella, Matthew Scott, and as Chaplin, Robert McClure.  All of them always do quality work and are a tribute to their generation.  It would be so nice to see Ms. Colella ans Mr. McClure particularly finally get a show that is fully up to their abilities.

Robert McClure as Chaplin (left) and as his alter-ego, The Little Tramp (right).

Maybe it is the subject matter that is so hard to capture.  After all, another silent film giant, Mack Sennett got the musical treatment, and it was a flop, if beloved, musical - Mack and Mabel.  Where Limelight goes from here is anyone's guess, but it seems like a great idea for a musical, and I hope this isn't the last we see of it.

Here is b-roll/commercial footage of the show:

(Photos by Craig Schwartz)

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  1. At the Playhouse, The Little Tramp is a star once again

    By Diana Saenger

    September 23, 2010

    Charlie Chaplin (Rob McClure) and Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella) square off in the La Jolla Playhouse production of 'Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin.'

    Photo: Craig Schwartz

    Hannah Chaplin (Ashley Brown) assures her son Charlie (Jake Evan Schwenke) of her love in 'Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin.'

    Photo: Craig Schwartz

    The moment the screen showing a silent Chaplin film parts and actor Rob McClure steps through it, "Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin" at the La Jolla Playhouse comes to life and never lags for an instant.

    Chaplin appears onstage as an old man looking back on the highlights of his extraordinary career. As Young Charlie (Jake Evan Schwenke) and his mother (Ashley Brown) perform a song and dance routine for Fred Karno's music company in London, the older Chaplin walks among them. Delight dances in his eyes at the memories of the joy he brought to others.

    Karno's advice that Chaplin learn to appear "wistful," and his mother's challenge that he "try to find the story in people's eyes," pave the road for Chaplin's life - first in vaudeville and then in movies.

    When Chaplin gets an invite from Mack Sennett (Rob Orbach) and his Keystone Film Company to come to Hollywood, his excitement is unrestrained. Chaplin wants his brother/partner Sydney (Matthew Scott) to come with him, but Syd refuses insisting that someone must take care of their mentally ill mother. It's not until years later when Chaplin's character The Little Tramp has propelled him to success, that Syd arrives in America and becomes his manager. Scott ("Jersey Boys") does a solid job of watching Charlie's back no matter what.

    The marvelous book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan is sustained by Curtis' music and lyrics, choreography by Warren Carlyle, and direction by Carlyle and Michael Unger.

    The story unfolds through the clever use of film clips and several vaudeville stage and scene changes that include everything from Hollywood movie sets to night clubs to poverty row streets and dwellings.

    Costume designer Linda Cho, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and lighting designer Paul Gallo pulled out all the stops to ensure every second of the play transports the audience to that exact moment in time, thoroughly enjoying the journey.

    The 23 cast members obviously put in a lot of hard work to sing, dance and react to Chaplin's vaudeville antics. Jenn Colella is a standout as Hedda Hopper, a girl who was embarrassingly dismissed when she auditioned for Chaplin's movies and held such a grudge against him that she was partly responsible for his being exiled from America as a communist.

    It's in the scenes of Chaplin's move into political arenas and his research for his film "The Great Dictator," that McClure gets the loudest of his many laughs - especially when he is Chaplin adding his own dialogue to a silent documentary of Adolph Hitler wildly gesturing and pontificating to the masses. In his rousing portrayal of Chaplin, McClure has tried to look into the eyes of the comic genius and find his own story. '"Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin" entertains so well it may be the best play of the year.


    "Amazing production and performances."
    - Stephanie Mertes

    sandiego magazine
    Grade-A score and star
    By Don Braunagel
    Posted on Mon, Sep 20th, 2010
    Last updated Tue, Sep 21st, 2010

    Encapsulating Charlie Chaplin’s long and legend-making life into a two-act musical requires, of course, a tightly edited script and directing at breakneck speed. Those elements mark La Jolla Playhouse’s Limelight: the Story of Charlie Chaplin. But what elevates this musical bio, unlike most, is its ability to capture much of the poignancy of Chaplin’s story.

    For that, credit chiefly two factors — Christopher Curtis’s superbly varied score and Robert McClure’s extraordinary portrayal of Chaplin. From his first appearance as the young Vaudeville comedian Chaplin, McClure inhabits his character, including rubber-legged imitations of the moves that made Chaplin’s Tramp the world’s most beloved star of silent films, plus making Chaplin one of the richest, most famous men of the early 20th century. McClure also boasts a strong, emotive singing voice, especially impressive in Curtis’s ballads. His is a star-making performance.

  3. Jake,

    Thanks so much for providing us with a balance of reviews! I really appreciate the effort and interest.



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