I have long had an obsession with Charlie Chaplin. As the daughter of a mother with a fetish for old movies, I was raised on films like “Modern Times” and “The Kid”. I continued following his life and career as a film minor in University and wrote a paper or two on his movies. Coming to live in NY as a young girl, I used to flee to the Film Forum or wherever they were showing a retrospective on his life an career.
Needless to say, when the film came out in 1992 about his life, with Robert Downey, Jr. playing the lead, I was memorized by the truth about his polarized existence as a fading legend. I have never forgotten his story and was eager to see the new Broadway show that’s in previews right now at the Barrymore Theatre. On Sunday, I was lucky to be invited both to a matinee and to a luncheon with the cast at the Lambs Club. It could not have been a more perfect start to my day and to compliment the play.
Located at 132 West 44th Street, the 1905 landmark Stanford White-designed building was originally host to the famous Lambs Club, America’s first professional theater club. Walking around the restaurant had me gaping at the portraits on the walls of their former members including Spencer Tracey, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil DeMille, John Barrymore, Milton Berle, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin and Will Rogers. The food is exquisite and this is truly a trip back in time to the golden age of film (132 West 44th Street, 212-997-5262).
But Chaplin, the Musical was everything that I hoped it be, which is a lot to say for any Broadway show. It reminded me a lot of the film “The Artist” that swept the Oscars last year – it’s black & white (the costumes and dim lighting keep the show in a very sync with a very 1920s feel) – and it’s about a silent picture star who couldn’t evolve with the changing times. The only glimmer of color in the entire 2-1/2 hours of running time came in the form of a red rose that Chaplin puts on his uniform as the memorable Tramp that he embodied in nearly every film.
A lot of things worked in this show for me- the music, the choreography…the use of video, most particularly. Usually, I would find this distracting but not at all here. The cast and crew of Chaplin had to recreate famous scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s most iconic movies frame by frame and the results are so impressive that it’s hard to tell the difference between the old and the new. What also works is the set, the costumes and most importantly, the stars. I happened to meet Rob McClure right before the show started, and he could not have a nicer guy. When he came onto the stage on a tight rope in the first scene, I knew he had a huge role to pull off and I wondered how he was going to do it. Every actor has a challenge in this show – to keep the show respectful to this very, very famous figure.
The play spans a long period of time – from 1894-1972 so there is a lot of story to cover. It starts off in London, where Chaplin was born to two music hall performers. After his parents broke up, he sang with his mother in clubs who was eventually taken away from him and his brother and put in an asylum. Chaplin became well-known as a vaudeville performer early on and developed a following in London, so much so that he was eventually called to Hollywood by Keystone Pictures.
But as lucky as he was to find fame and fortune, he could never get the image of his mother out of his mind and remained tormented throughout his career. When he gets the offer to work in film, he laughs and says, “My mom’s crazy, my dad’s a drunk, maybe I should work in the movies!”
When he arrived to work for film maker Mack Sennett, it was his first time in front of a camera and was terribly chaotic (but a very scene in the show) and Sennett threatens to fire him. He tells him “Once you find the story, you make it your own.” That’s when Chaplin adopted the Tramp look with the baggy pants, the moustache and suspenders and called the look “a poet, a wanderer, a dreamer, a tramp” – one that would define him forever more. While at Keystone, he appeared in and directed 35 films, starring as the Little Tramp in nearly all and the show takes us through every film, with clips playing while they’re acting out the scene or when the characters are re-watching the out-takes. With his brother now as his manager, he left to sign on at various studios until he created his own, Chaplin Studios. Along the way, he makes a lot of money and marries several times. At one point, Syd tells him his “personal life is starting to look like a trash novel”and he starts having trouble with a certain reporter, named Hedda Hopper. Chaplin had never applied for US citizenship, but claimed that he was a “paying visitor” to the United States. This sparked suspicion with the House Un-American Activities Council (HUAC), who believed that he was injecting Communist propaganda into his films and Hopper took the story ran until it ran him into the ground.
When silents begin to go extinct, his brother told Chaplin, “Talkies are here, they’re the future” and Chaplin replies, “Not mine. I am a silent comedian.” He decides to make a film about Hitler as his first talkie and stuck his nose into politics which caused his battle with Hopper to escalate. Another scandal occurred when a 22-year-old Joan Barry threw a paternity suit at him. He denied it fervently but never recovered from the mess that Hopper helped shut him down. Along with his wife, Oona O’Neil, he eventually fled the county and returned in 1972 for a honorary Oscar.
And the amazing thing is that we watch ALL of this unfold on stage. The writers and composers touched on most aspects of Chaplin’s life and career, using song lyrics, brilliant talent and multi-media to tell an incredibly rich but difficult story. If you go in to this show not knowing a lot about Chapin, you will certainly come out knowing what you need to know.
You will know that he was considered one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of American cinema. His films show, through the Little Tramp’s positive outlook on life in a world full of chaos, that the human spirit has and always will remain the same. While Chaplin loved his mother, he couldn’t escape her grasp and somehow this play keeps a close hand on all of these important facets of his life. The world loved the tramp, and so does this play. It’s an homage to the man, to the legend.
There are several stand-out performances. As mentioned above, Rob McClure is exquisite. He gets Chaplin’s mannerisms and walk and makes his portrayal look effortless, although I am sure it is quite challenging. The sense of control over his body and voice is symmetrical and when he belted out songs like “Where Are All the People” and “The Life that you Wished For”, I was truly at the end of my seat, smiling and cheering inside for this unknown actor, knowing that no longer that he shall be.
As Hedda Hopper, Jenn Colella is strong, evil and realistic in her portrayal of the one the first great gossip columnists who did anything to anyone to get a story (she paved the path for where we are today) and it is perhaps her constant inclusion in the second act that made the show even better. Whether she goes after him with a vengeance either because Chaplin would never sit down with her or because she really believed he was a Communist, we will never know.
Other strong performances include Christine Noll, who plays his mother; Wayne Alan-Wilcox, who plays his brother, Syd; Jim Borstelmann who plays Alf Reeves, his sidekick from London who joined him in Hollywood; Michael McCormick who plays Mack Sennett; Erin Mackey who plays Oona O’Neil (his last wife) and even the young Chaplin was wonderful, played by Zachary Unger.
The play is based on a book by Thomas Meehan, who wrote Hairspray, Annie, The Producers, and Christopher Curtis, and choreograhped by Warren Carlyle of Follies. They deserve several Tony Awards and I can’t imagine any other Broadway show coming along this season that will top this one.
Chaplin, the Musical just announced a great deal for families that you might want to check out. A family can get 4 tickets for $189 (minimum purchase of 4 tickets). Click here and use the code: CL4FAMILY.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary tickets to facilitate this review but I can honestly say that this was one of the best shows that I’ve seen in a very long time. All opinions are my own and I was not asked to have any particular point of view.