Tuesday, September 11, 2012

REVIEW: Chaplin: The Musical

Review of the Saturday evening preview performance at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City.  Starring Rob McClure, Jim Borstelmann, Jenn Colella, Erin Mackey, Michael McCormick, Christiane Noll, Zachary Unger and Wayne Alan Wilcox.  Book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan.  Music and Lyrics by Christopher Curtis.  Direction and Choreography by Warren Carlyle.  2 hours, 30 minutes with an intermission.

Grade: B+

I fear, and really hope I am wrong, that Chaplin: The Musical will probably go down the same path as last season's Bonnie and Clyde.  Both are bio-musicals about real-life people more beloved for the lore of their stories and the characters they are in our minds than for the way they really were.  I suspect that this musical, like the other, will also have its ardent supporters and is too-dismissive detractors.  The problem with both shows is that a lot of people will go to both thinking they know the story, and will come away disappointed because the story told doesn't match their expectations. As with Bonnie and Clyde, I fall under the category of supporter of Chaplin, though this time somewhat less ardent.  And not because it didn't meet my expectations, but rather because this time around, they are so close to a show that could really resonate far beyond what it does now.  So close it almost hurts to say it isn't quite there.  Don't get me wrong - I really liked the show a lot, and even left humming a tune from it.  I just wanted to "love" it, not "really like" it.  And I hope it lasts longer than Bonnie and Clyde did.

Charlie meets Oona: Rob McClure and Erin Mackey

So let me get my quibbles - I only have two big ones - out of the way first, and leave you with all of the reasons why you should get yourself to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre ASAP.  First, there are a couple of times in the show where I became uncomfortably aware of the book by Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis.  In both instances, that realization came during extended sequences where the characters talk to each other, spewing fact after fact to each other, rather than letting information be discovered through the conversation.  What is particularly jarring about these instances is that most of the time the life and times of Charlie Chaplin are revealed in creative, theatrical, and most importantly, musical ways.  So when that doesn't happen it sticks out like a sore thumb.  And funny enough, in both instances, it would have been solved by adding a song for Chaplin's brother, Sydney, played by the fantastic Wayne Alan Wilcox.  Why they didn't give this guy a song or two defies explanation.

The second quibble I have is that the importance of Oona O'Neill Chaplin, both in real life and in the telling of his story here, is so paramount in Chaplin's life that it seems like her part of the story is tacked on at the end.  The character gets maybe 15 minutes of stage time, and yet it is she that finally brings the guy some relief from the pain of losing his mother and his own childhood, which is the primary traffic on the stage throughout the evening.  She also ends his downward spiral into dangerous self-absorption and ego over common sense that nearly cost him his career and his stature as one of the greatest entertainers of all time.  It is another instance of the creatives having a great tool at their disposal (the lovely and very charming Erin Mackey) and  not using her enough.

That said, there is so much to love about Chaplin: The Musical.  And there are even a few times where the show is propelled into the "gloriously wonderful musical theatre moment" category.  I suppose I should confess from the start that I am drawn to shows about the darker side of people, and this show is certainly in that vein.  It reminds me quite a bit in tone and style of Pippin (another show that critics and audiences never really get).  Both are highly stylized storytelling about a real person with real human struggles.  Both are about real people whose lives have taken on mythic proportions, and both are about men whose success nearly causes their demise, if it weren't for the love of another, who sees the man not the myth, and loves him, anyway.

The Transformation:  Charlie Chaplin becomes The Little Tramp

Chief among the show's greatest moments are the truly amazing opening moments of the show.  The show curtain is really a silent film of Chaplin as The Little Tramp standing in an alley staring at us, wide-eyed and mock-innocently.  As the lights dim and the music swells, the film becomes action-packed, morphing into a live stage scene featuring Chaplin precariously balancing on a high wire, while all of the people who are important in his life call out lines and key musical phrases below him.  Eventually, they swirl out from under him, leaving him - for a moment - alone and precariously balanced between life and death.  There is a musical chord, the lights black out and instantly come up again revealing the first scene of the show in stunning black and white, and I do mean stunning.  People literally gasped and then applauded.  Those first moments are among the best openings I have ever seen.  Another such sequence happens when Chaplin nearly loses his job in Hollywood because he just isn't funny.  His desperation gives way to creative genius, and before our eyes - and with just a few power chords of music - Charlie Chaplin the man transforms into Charlie Chaplin the mythic star, known as The Little Tramp.  It was breathtaking to watch - I am covered in goose-pimples just recalling it now.  And a third such triumphant a moment in the show is when Chaplin's series of failed marriages - all to under age girls (were this today, he'd be a footnote and registered sex offender in Hollywood history, not a superstar) - depicted as a boxing match, stylishly staged with the cast holding the rope of the ring while Hedda Hopper provides the play-by-play commentary.

The rest of the show - save for those times when the book scenes take too long that I mentioned above - is stylized with an exciting fluidity and not one but three concepts which change as Chaplin's life does.  Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle has created a constantly moving, interesting pageant of dances morphing into movie scenes, morphing into circus acts, morphing into a sobering final act.  The early moments are punctuated by the set up of the scene as if a movie were being created about Charlie (complete with a chalked clapboard and the call for "quiet on the set").  Then, when his career takes over and he is the one making the movies the scenes take on the conventions of a finished film, and the years roll by (complete with a movie usher, flashlight in hand, directing us to our seats, calling for us to "come see Charlie Chaplin").  And finally, when Chaplin's real life begins to spiral out of control, the show takes on the imagery of a three ring circus, complete with dancing through hoops, walking a tightrope and Hedda Hopper as ring master.  The dances are period looking, but stylized to fit the tone, and are very graceful and, at times, athletic.  They manage, too, to be both panoramic in scope and full of individual moments.  The staging, overall, is superb, really, and often quite thrilling.

Projections designed by Jon Driscoll

The design elements come together

The design team as created a visually stunning production that has the feel of both a modern musical and a big splashy old school Broadway entertainment. Not until a key moment late in the show is there any real hint of color in the show - the entire production looks like a live black and white film, and the effect is magnificent in that it feels like Hollywood in its infancy and it takes on a creepy kind of feel as "real life" takes over from "reel life."  To create this effect, kudos go to Angelina Avallone who created the make-up design, design legends Ken Billington (brilliant lighting design) and the late Martin Pakledinaz (who, along with Amy Clark, created a dazzling array of costumes), and set designer Beowulf Boritt (whose amazing set pieces fly in and out and circle around to us with a cinematic flow).  And finally, to Jon Driscoll who designed the brilliant use of film and projections to heighten the action, bring us into the world of early Hollywood, and to comment on the action, all without interfering with our ability to focus our attention where it needs to be.  It is hard to believe this is the guy who provided the same services for last season's Ghost.

The score, by Christopher Curtis in his Broadway debut, has a little bit of everything in it - from Broadway razzle dazzle to power ballads to catchy concept numbers - all of which feel period and contemporary at the same time, and as they should, the songs support the action and develop the characters.  The lyrics he provides run the gamut from serviceable to creative/poetic and are never cringe-worthy.

The hard-working ensemble, triple threats all, take on many roles each, plus execute the tricky choreography making it look easy.  They were all wonderful, with stand out performances from Justin Bowen, William Ryall and particularly Hayley Podschun as Mildred Harris, Chaplin's first child bride.  The entire ensemble is used to great effect during the last two act one production numbers, "Life Can Be Like the Movies," and "The Look-a-Like Contest."  The latter, a recreation of an actual event, features the ensemble doing Fosse-style dancing, modified tapping, cane tricks, roller skating, violin playing and the most hilarious and clever kick line on Broadway today.

Happy New Year and Happy Wedding Number One!

Among the principal cast, the performances are uniformly good.  Jim Borstelmann makes the most of a small role, the affable assistant Alf Reeves.  I have the feeling that in some earlier version, his role was much larger.  Michael McCormick plays several roles, with Mack Sennett the most prominent.  He gets to sing a clever patter song, "Sennett Song," and handles it smoothly.  He also plays an ominous government official, and brings an interesting character arc to the "Man of All Countries" sequence.  Young actor Zachary Unger gives an amazing performance, both as Little Charlie throughout the show, and as Jackie Coogan, the little waif in The Kid.  That film, and the scene in which the Kid cries for his mother, is painfully recreated in the show, and the young man is heartbreaking.  Sniffles all around and well-earned by the boy, who plays it straight, no cute stuff, no pandering to the audience.  He lets the show do the work for him, allowing him to give one of the best child actor performances I've seen in years.

Mother and Son: Rob McClure, Christiane Noll
and Zachary Unger

Hedda Hopper's Hollywood: Jenn Colella

Even though she gets the penultimate bow at the end, Erin Mackey's Oona gets relatively short stage time.  But she makes the most of it, making it easy to understand why Charlie falls for her and stays with her 30 years and 8 children later.  She has a lovely, clear voice as evidenced by the sweet ballad she sings, "What Only Love Can See." She also makes a strong impression in the show's final moments. Another major lady in Charlie's life was his mother Hannah.  As depicted in the show, she devolves into dementia and is forced to go to a hospital, effectively abandoning her children, as their father is absentee at best.  This separation is key as the events leading up to her hospitalization are what gets him started in show  business, and the separation itself haunts the man until he dies.  A tough role under any circumstances, it calls for a singer, actress, dancer who can glide seamlessly in and out of scenes.  They couldn't find much better than Christiane Noll, who is simply wonderful in the part.  I've never had the pleasure of seeing her perform, and now I can see what all the fuss is about.  When she sings, it is so clear and effortless, and so packed with emotion.  And it says a lot that she can make such an impression just by standing there silently.   Brava.  And the third woman in his life, Hedda Hopper, is played with brassy nastiness and a glorious belt by the always reliable Jenn Colella.  She gets one of the best songs in the show, "All Falls Down," a big show bizzy number that she attacks with gusto.  She also gets my vote for villain of the year; driven to get an interview with Chaplin, who patently refuses her time after time, she digs for anything she can get to hold over him to get that interview.  He still refuses, and with a sneer and venom you can taste in the rear mezzanine, Colella really goes for it, making Hedda a witch and a witch hunter, as Hedda nearly destroys the man with accusations of Communism.  Perez Hilton and TMZ combined don't have the power that this gossip maven had, and Ms. Colella turns in a bravura performance recreating that with glee.

Brotherly Love: Rob McClure and Wayne Alan Wilcox

The most important man in Chaplin's life, his older brother Sydney is winningly brought to the stage by the really terrific Wayne Alan Wilcox, an actor I always enjoy, and who may have just found the vehicle that will take him to the next level.  That he makes such a big impression is no small accomplishment, as nearly every scene he has is with Charlie.  Wilcox is funny, smart and uses his height to his advantage in giving Sydney his due.  As I stated earlier, I just wish he got a song or two to sing.  Trust me on this, Mr. Wilcox is a star on the rise.

Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp

Finally, and most importantly is Rob McClure's performance as Charlie Chaplin.  I have but one word: mesmerizing.  I found myself watching him even when he wasn't the focus.  He is so natural and makes it all seem so effortless, which is no small task given all of the things he has to do - acting, singing and dancing are the usual trio, but add to that roller skating, playing violin, physical comedy chock full of pratfalls, fake punches and at one point being dragged across the stage clinging to a fat rope.  He, and the audience with him, gets lost in his portrayal.  People will be talking about the monumental physicality of the role for the rest of the season, and he really is a master at it all (I can't believe he does it 8 times a week!).  But what might get lost in all the chatter is that as bombastic as the role calls him to be, McClure never forgets the humanity, the pain and the self-inflicted low self-esteem that made Charlie Chaplin the man (not the star) a complicated and often difficult soul.  Mr. McClure's voice is also superb; his gentle "If I Left London" eventually soars, and his "The Life That You Wished For" is heartbreaking.  But get your hankies ready for his 11 o'clock number, "Where Are All the People?" when a defeated Charlie realizes his actions and ego have left him alone.  Talk about a powerful song, and McClure nails it with a belt that gives me goose bumps.  Probably as it should be, he makes Chaplin: The Musical a must-see.

I really hope I am wrong, and that the show gets a long, healthy run.  With a star-in-the making turn by its leading man, and some truly amazing supporting performances, plus a very well presented concept, the show has a real chance to make quite an impression.  Lovers of old style musicals will love its sweeping story and huge production numbers, while those of us who love a modern bite to our shows will love the concept and the fearless portrayal of the painful dark side of one of the world's most adored comedians and filmmakers.

(Production photos by Joan Marcus, used by permission)


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