Broadway review: ‘Chaplin’

Posted: September 11, 2012

In the new musical Chaplin, which is every bit as entertaining as Charlie Chaplin himself, Rob McClure portrays the film genius with an irresistible sweetness, like candy you can't - and don't want to - stop eating.

In that, of course, he mirrors the Chaplin film persona perfectly. And so does the show, which itself comes off looking like a movie from the pre-talkie years. Most of the evening is costumed by Amy Clark and the late Broadway designer Martin Pakledinaz, in remarkably varied shades of black, white and gray. In Angelina Avallone's makeup and Ken Billington's bold lighting, even the casts' skin colors are muted. The single colorful piece on the stage, until the last minutes, is the red lapel rose that Chaplin's little tramp character wore - a striking effect.

That rose is used somewhat soppily at first as an instrumental piece of the young Chaplin's life - his mom gives it to him as she's taken off to a mental hospital; she would spend the entire rest of her life in institutions. But the little rose eventually becomes a powerful part of the show's storytelling, in a script by Thomas Meehan, who also wrote the books for Hairspray, The Producers and Annie, which is about to be revived on Broadway. Meehan's co-writer is Broadway newcomer Christopher Curtis, whose graceful, pretty score is just right.

Graceful is one appropriate adjective for the mega-talented McClure, a Philadelphia-based actor who with this show becomes a major Broadway light. Philadelphia theatergoers will remember him two seasons back in his performance as Mozart in Walnut Street Theatre's Amadeus, and for his Barrymore-winning portrayal in the title role of Arden Theatre Company's award-sweeper, The Flea and the Professor. (He was the professor, not the flea.) New Yorkers know him as a puppeteer-actor from Avenue Q on Broadway and most recently, as Charley in the Encores! revival of Where's Charley?

McClure's revealing portrayal gives you Chaplin in his many facets: the young turn-of-century British vaudevillian, the novice silent-film comic player brought to Hollywood with substantial money by Mack Sennett (impressive Michael McCormick, who takes additional roles), the evolving big-shot who makes his brother (Wayne Alan Wilcox) his business manager, the womanizer, the genius storyteller, the demanding moviemaker, the adored celebrity, the man whose cocksure attitude overwhelmed his self-doubt and the Hitler-hater hounded by Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper (the excellent Jenn Colella) as a communist sympathizer.

For his politics, the Justice Department banned Chaplin from the United States while he traveled with his wife Oona - Eugene O'Neill's daughter - to his native Britain in 1952; she's played by Erin Mackey. Chaplin did not return until he accepted an honorary Oscar 20 years later. He lived in Switzerland until he died in 1977.

Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle gives the musical some inspired touches, not least of which is the scenes of movie-making, which play out while the real film flashes in the background. Carlyle also lets McClure take over - but makes sure the actor's Chaplin is far more nuanced than just little-tramp screen imitations. In the end, the compact, sparkling McClure – like Chaplin – makes you believe he can perform just about anything and command an ovation for it.


Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

-----------------------------------------

Chaplin is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 47th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, New York.

|
|
|
|
|