Review by Tulis McCall
The first 15 minutes of this show had me entranced. I was sitting forward in m seat thinking, “Boy-o, boy. This is going to be great.” The show opens with the cast singing What'cha gonna do when it all falls down? To Charlie Chaplin (Rob McClure) who is balancing on a tightrope. So we know this ain’t going to be a ramp in the park.
Flashback to turn of the century London and little Charlie with his mother, Hannah (Christiane Noll) who sings: Look at all the people,
And see into their eyes.
Try to find the story
Behind each one's disguise.
We see the beginning of Chaplin’s gift for creating a story out of observation. And we assume, wrongly, that we are on a solid track. Would that these writers had taken a page out of Hannah’s book, because what is lacking in Chaplin is a story.
This is indeed the tale of an icon, sprinkled with as many salient tidbits as the writers think we can handle. Chaplin is spotted by Mack Sennett (Michael McCormick) during a New York run and lured to Hollywood. Charlie has never seen a moving picture before, but when he does his research, he is gob smacked. Off to Hollywood he goes, soon to be followed by his good friend Alf Reeves (Jim Borstelmann) and brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilco). After first attempts fail, Sennet gives him an ultimatum: Be funny or be gone. With his back against the wall, Chaplin comes up with the Little Tramp. The Tramp will tell the tale of a lonely man always looking for love. He will suffer disappointments and abandonment – like Charlie experienced with his mother – and ultimately will survive. He will be loved. He will also be very, very funny.
Chaplin becomes box office gold and Hollywood embraces him in every way it can. He careens from studio to studio as more and more money and artistic control is offered. While his career explodes his personal life implodes. He racks up three marriages, each of which tops the other in alimony payments, and ends up middle aged and alone - the one thing that Charlie Chaplin does not ever, ever want to be.
To top it all off, “Talkies” are coming on the scene, and Charlie wants nothing to do with them, until he makes The Great Dictator. In this movie he finally speaks. Not only does he speak, he finds that he has a voice that wants to be heard in more than just the movies. As World War II comes near, Chaplin assumes the mantel of spokesperson for the people who are considered collateral damage. He speaks at rallies, and everywhere else he can. He speaks to everyone except the one person who really wants an interview: Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella). And when Charlie continues to deny her an interview, ol’ Hedda creates a one-woman posse and goes after Chaplin. She investigates his every move, accusing him of being a Communist, and reports him to the Justice Department. Chaplin is deported in 1952.
But wait!! There’s more! You see, before he is deported he finally meets the love of his life – Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey). That’s O’Neill as in Eugene. And this young thing smites Chaplin him with songs that are so sweet you run the risk of getting cavities just listening to them. The two have a few duets that speak of how difficult he can be, but she sees through this and wants the best for him, blah blah blah. Which would mean something if we had seen any of his tantrums.
But we don’t. We don’t see much of the man, really. So we end up feeling like Hedda Hopper, sort of jilted. We come all this way to see him, but what we get is an adorable, charming facsimile who is in no way as physically nimble as Chaplin was, and, in this incarnation, shows little or none of Chaplin’s genius. And in an odd twist, when entire production is staged in a sort of grey tint, as if this were a film – get it? Everyone wears a layer of grey make-up, with the exception of the one black actor. Hello???
The authors know what they want us to feel, and in case you miss it, they give it to us in spades in the last scene. The occasion is Chaplin’s return to the States to receive an honorary Academy Award in 1972. The final musical number is This Man and each cast member pays musical homage, one at a time, to Chaplin, who has his humble back to us so that we can see the people who love him and want to join their ranks.
Not me. I was just waiting to see if they could get Chaplin to walk on water.
"A stolidly conventional heart beats beneath these airy trappings."
Ben Brantley for NY Times
"It’s modestly entertaining. But in a story in which Chaplin often talks about the magic of the flickers, one yearns for more flickers of magic."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
"It’s not a great sign when you leave a musical thinking more about the visuals than the songs."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Dismally dull musical. ...The most the writing aspires to is mediocrity, which it rarely if ever achieves."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Presented in a blatant, connect-the-dots manner."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"There is surprisingly little laughter in the melancholy case of 'Chaplin.'"
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"This undeniably heartfelt and ambitious effort fails to live up to its potential."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp"
Steven Suskin for Variety