What do you get when you try to make a big Broadway musical about the most beloved silent comedian of all time? Something not big and splashy, apparently. Though the songs may lack the fire of a big Broadway musical and the writing may be a bit rambling, Chaplin: The Musical is nevertheless a loving homage to the man who became immortalized as the Little Tramp that seeks to recapture some of the wonder of the era of silent filmmaking.
Chaplin opens with a projected image of Charlie Chaplin (the brilliant Rob McClure) which gives way to a scene: Chaplin is balancing on a tight rope above the stage, while the rest of the company sings, “Whatcha gonna do when it all falls down?” When the song finishes, we get a flashback, with young Charlie (Zachary Unger) and his mother Hannah (Christiane Noll) wandering the streets of London, pointing out all the interesting people they pass.
The writing, with its constant use of flashbacks, is Chaplin’s central problem. The writers of Chaplin really want you to leave the show understanding that Chaplin’s mother’s fall into insanity were important influences in his life and art. At key moments of the show, Hannah and young Charlie enter scenes, and though both Noll and Unger are wonderful performers with great voices, their presence often jolts the musical.
The flashback structure only works during a wonderful scene showing Chaplin, newly arrived in Hollywood, trying to think of something to please new boss Mack Sennett (a scene-stealing Michael McCormick). Chaplin sits at his desk, wondering what funny thing he can think up. And then Hannah and young Charlie begin a reprise of “Look At All the People” – while Chaplin puts on overlarge pants and shoes and gets the bowler hat and cane from some of the people from the flashback. It’s a whimsical moment that is all too rare in this show.
For the rest of the show, Chaplin moves too quickly. After devoting time and sentiment to restaging The Kid, Chaplin’s other silent masterpieces are referenced in list-like fashion. The Gold Rush gets the newsreel treatment, there are circus tricks in homage to The Circus, there’s an assembly line to represent Modern Times, and City Lights is only mentioned in a bit of dialogue at the end. The treatment of The Great Dictator is better – and actually provides one of the show’s funniest moments, with McClure jabbering in an imitation of Hitler.
Chaplin’s personal life receives the same SparkNotes treatment. The show uses a boxing match to speed through Chaplin’s first three marriages, with Mildred Harris, Lita Grey, and Paulette Goddard portrayed as gold diggers. And there’s no mention of Goddard’s involvement in Modern Times or The Great Dictator. For the woman who many consider Chaplin’s best costar, I expected better treatment.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Chaplin a lot. It transported me back into an era of Hollywood when movie making was still magical. An early scene showing Chaplin watching his first movie evokes a sense of wonder about the cinema that is often lost on today’s audiences.
It is the brilliant performances of the cast that ensure that this whimsical feeling isn’t entirely lost among the shortcomings of the writing. To say that Rob McClure completely embodies Charlie Chaplin is an understatement; the man has clearly put all his heart and soul into this role. He has mastered the Little Tramp’s walk and other mannerisms. More than just a pale imitation, McClure’s performance does justice to the heart at the center of Chaplin’s films. But when the show addresses some of the darker times in Chaplin’s life, McClure is more than up for the material as well.
The supporting cast is no less stellar. Noll, Unger, and McCormick make up for the writing of their scenes with their heartfelt performances. Erin Mackey’s lovely performance as Chaplin’s final wife Oona O’Neill elevates the second act. And then there’s Jenn Colella, who almost steals the show from McClure as deliciously meddling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
In the end, Chaplin succeeds more than it fails. It gives a snapshot of a man who has entered into myth, and it pays homage to a long-gone era of Hollywood. I would certainly recommend the show to any Chaplin fans or silent/classic film fans who are in the New York area while it’s still running. It’s not perfect, but it recaptures some of the wonder of cinema’s golden age. And that’s more than enough reason to see it.