Instead, he’ll find the lackluster new tuner Chaplin hobbling on a bendy cane across the Great White Way.
With music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis, and a book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers), this bio-musical follows Charlie Chaplain’s life from the poverty-ridden streets of London to his meteoric success in early-20th century Hollywood.
Chaplin unfolds with all the nuance of an 8th-grade biography from the Scholastic Book Club. We get a grand parade of the actor’s major life milestones, but never any adult insight into his psyche or motivations.
Director Warren Carlyle fatally stages the show as a black-and-white movie, with costumes and sets in dismal shades of gray and video projections filling the stage with the grainy flickers of rolling film. Even the cast wears stark white makeup, resembling corpses, casting a morgue-like pall over the show.
The characters are written flatly as it is—making them literally colorless hardly helps.
Christopher Curtis’ middling music shifts from vaudeville to ragtime to modern musical pop, getting its pep from punchy orchestrations. The songs’ intentions are in the right place, but they never soar: Chaplin’s pensive ballad sung to his sick mother, “The Life That You Wished For,” could be heartbreaking if it didn’t sound like a pop ballad recycled from the ’90s Broadway scrap heap.
Chaplin’s saving grace, if it has one, is Rob McClure in the title role—he’s charming, lovable, and instantly endearing. While mining new laughs out of decades-old routines, he expertly mimics the Little Tramp’s on-screen mannerisms and imbues Chaplin with authentic off-camera humanity. Christiane Noll also brings some much needed warmth as Charlie’s beloved mother, Hannah.
Though Jenn Colella’s vaudeville song, “All Falls Down,” is one of the few winning numbers, her whip-sharp talents are wasted as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who is shoehorned in as a villainess straight out of mustache-twirling melodrama.
Chaplin’s dramatic life may seem like a good a idea for a musical, but ultimately it ain’t—at least not as told here. The beloved clown’s story is already well-documented in multiple biographies and the 1992 movie Chaplin. This misguided musical adds no new color.
Chaplin is currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Photos: Joan Marcus