Charlie Chaplin, one of the most famous comedians of silent films, has come to Broadway. Before seeing Chaplin: The Musical on Thursday evening, I wondered, can an icon best known for his silent movies be enticing enough to survive Broadway, where singing, dancing, catchy tunes, and brilliant effects make a hit show? That depends on whether audiences are curious about Chaplin’s life, or if they’re only looking to be entertained by his on-screen alter ego, the Little Tramp. The show, which opened last month at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, isn’t going for laughs but rather tells the story of Chaplin’s rags-to-riches life (a biomusical, so to speak), and all the highs and lows along the way. When you’re not watching Chaplin, performed masterfully by the very lovable and convincing Rob McClure, you have to look for the magic. But when it appears, it absolutely delights.
The musical begins with Chaplin’s humble beginnings in London, where a loving but mentally unstable mother raised him along with an alcoholic father, then briefly shows his early years entertaining in music halls, and finally focuses on his stardom in Hollywood. The Little Tramp seemed unstoppable and Chaplin quickly became wealthy, gaining an ego and a penchant for teenage girls along the way. He had three marriages that ended rather quickly, left-wing politics that led to controversy, a falling out with his brother-turned-business manager, and a long struggle with loneliness as he pondered his rise and fall. His fourth marriage, to Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, is the one that lasts, and the show ends on a high note in 1972, when Chaplin was awarded an honorary Academy Award to much applause.
Telling Chaplin’s life over the course of two-and-a-half hours isn’t easy. Although the only fully developed character is Chaplin, much is made of his mother’s impact on his life. Her mental decline, according to the musical at least, influences and inspires Chaplin’s career. One of the most magical moments occurs when the audience watches Chaplin find the inspiration for the Little Tramp. He remembers a teaching from his mother, and the show quickly flashbacks to a memory from childhood. The adult Charlie weaves his way through a conversation on the street between his mother and young Charlie (played by the adorable Zachary Unger), plucking the various elements that bring the Little Tramp to life.
Unfortunately Christopher Curtis’ music is forgettable – relying on lyrics to tell the story – and the dialogue is occasionally corny. What the musical lacks in substance, it certainly makes up for in style. Chaplin is beautifully executed and progresses with wonderful fluidity. Beowulf Boritt’s set design, Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz’s costume design, and Angelina Avallone’s make-up design are all superb. A black-and-white movie motif is evident throughout the show (a red rose in Chaplin’s jacket is the only recurring bit of color). The cast all had ghostly white faces, and color only appeared in their skin, costumes, and the show’s décor in the final scene – when Chaplin is fully acknowledged as a man, not just as a movie star.
Shortly before intermission, a “Charlie Chaplin Look Alike Contest” becomes a dance. The line of performers in Little Tramp-attire was visually pleasing, incorporating the fork and dinner roll scene from The Gold Rush. But the choreography throughout the musical, just like the songs, wasn’t particularly memorable or exciting.
Ken Billington’s lighting design, however, must be praised, further emphasizing the black-and-white concept. And the integration of footage from Chaplin’s movies was excellent. On stage we see Chaplin being filmed on a bench with a woman, and as the set transitions to a movie theater filled with viewers, a screen appears to show the real Chaplin in that same bench scene.
Yet, it was incredibly hard to tell if the footage was the real Chaplin or Rob McClure performing as Chaplin, which speaks volumes about his resemblance and overall performance. McClure mastered the Little Tramp’s walk and expressive eyes. Appearing in nearly every scene, he truly carried the show with his impressive acting, singing, dancing, and even roller-skating. He embodied the eagerness of Chaplin upon his arrival in Hollywood, the hilarity of Chaplin’s parody of Hitler in The Great Dictator, and his conflict about his suffering mother. McClure doesn’t play Chaplin; he is Chaplin. There was magic in every moment of his outstanding performance.
Will Chaplin survive on Broadway? Perhaps only if audiences are prepared to see a depiction of his entire life, and not just a Broadway version of one of his silent films. There’s certainly some humor, but what makes Chaplin so special is its style, nuances, and of course McClure’s performance (and in the second half, it’s worth noting that Jenn Colella as Hedda Hopper is a powerhouse). The show isn’t perfect, but it’s touching and engaging. And perhaps most of all, it’s a beautifully conceived tribute to a movie icon.