Chaplin – The Little Tramp

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by: Sandi Durell

The complicated life of legendary Charlie Chaplin is more than this musical version could possibly capture in 2 ½ hours at the Barrymore Theatre. But it gives a platform to a very talented unknown Rob McClure (Where’s Charley at Encores) in the title role.

As the show opens, he is in Tramp costume on a high wire; the people in his life beneath “Look At All The People.” It’s immediately evident McClure has all the expressive facial and body moves needed to portray this iconic figure, capturing the character. However, what is also evident is a rather simplistic book and musical offering by composer/lyricist Chris Curtis (writing for the Discovery Channel) and Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers).

From Chaplin’s poor beginnings in the saloons of London where his mother sang and danced before she lapsed into insanity and hospitalization, to his rise in silent film, via Mack Sennett, McClure delivers vocally, his dance ability outstanding in re-creating the essence of Chaplin.

The production is conceived in black and white (with grey hues), emulating the era of the silent films (Beowulf Boritt, set design); the stage sparse. There are same colored costumes by the recently deceased Martin Pakledinaz, with Amy Clark. Lighting design by Ken Billington is a stand out. Unfortunately, the dull façade contributes in part to the spark that is lacking throughout.

What is played up is Chaplin’s womanizing, his liaisons with very young girls, his three failed marriages and publicized divorces; the latter cleverly set up with a rope as a boxing ring match. What becomes most tedious is the continuing flashbacks and obsession-driven relationship with his mother from boyhood thru manhood; the sadness that prevails throughout Chaplin’s life. His rise to fame also brought about a self-indulgence that wasn’t pretty in his Hollywood days.

The lovely soprano Christiane Noll plays Mother Hannah Chaplin. Chaplin, as a boy, is played by a sure-fire star on the rise, Zachary Unger (also portraying a young Jackie Cougan). First wife, Mildred Harris is played convincingly by Hayley Podschun.

The first act closer is a Chaplin ‘look-a-like’ contest which gives director/choreographer Warren Carlyle a chance to shine, which he does with period-like dance numbers throughout.

The role of the villainess Hedda Hopper, on the warpath to bring Chaplin down as a Commie when he refuses her an interview, is given to highlight performer Jenn Colella who embraces the role with vigor, her powerful voice resounding on bluesy “All Falls Down” and deserving of the audience cheering reaction. The ever loveable Michael McCormick as Mack Sennett (also the drunken womanizing young Chaplin’s father and FBI man McGranery) is underused. Chaplin’s loving brother Sydney is ably played by Wayne Alan Wilcox and his sidekick Alf Reeves by Jim Borstelmann. Fourth and last wife, Oona O’Neill, is charmingly created by Erin Mackey who also possesses a clear crisp soprano.

The theme song “What’ cha Gonna Do?” repeats throughout – what does this complicated genius of a man do as he sees his career wane; the insight evident when he utters “Everybody wants to be me except me” . . . “where are all the people who once loved me?”

There are reminiscent video effects (Jon Driscoll) of the great Chaplin movies “The Kid,”

“The Great Dictator” and the iconic “The Gold Rush,” which is re-created on stage at the end of Act 2 with the famous “dinner roll dance” sequence and a dozen little tramps in the offering.

All in all, the historical overview of the amazing Charlie Chaplin should suffice but it’s a rush from boyhood to age 88 in 2 ½ hours. It’s newbie Rob McClure that makes the production worthwhile.

*Photo: Joan Marcus

Chaplin the Musical – Barrymore Theatre, West 47th Street, NYC

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