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Should “Chaplin: The Musical” Have Stayed Silent?

August 27, 2012

It’s Fretts on Film on Broadway! I don’t normally review theater here, but I happened to catch a preview of the cinematically themed tuner Chaplin: The Musical over the weekend and just couldn’t remain silent. If you’re a skeptic like me and suspect a a song-filled show about a silent-film comedian could be an oxymoron, fear not: Chaplin is a crowd-pleasing, if slightly glib, charmer that skims across the highlights and lowlights of the Little Tramp’s turbulent life.

Attempting to condense a 50-plus year career into two and a half hours results in some unfortunate elisions; Chaplin’s first three marriages are collapsed into a comic boxing sequence, perhaps tasteless in light of the pedophiliac aspects of the initial two bonds. Several of his films, including Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, are left out entirely. But the show, penned by three-time Tony winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Christopher Curtis, does delve insightfully into Chaplin’s relationships with his mentally ill mother and business-manager brother as well as his motivations for making such classics as The Kid and The Great Dictator.

As the man himself, relative Broadway newcomer Rob McClure impressively embodies Chaplin in both his Little Tramp persona and as the real-life womanizer whose flirtation with Communism led to his eventual exile from the U.S. His eventual return to Hollywood’s red carpet to accept an Oscar in 1972 provides a fittingly emotional coda, as well as one of the few splashes of color in the otherwise overly monochromatic show, choreographed and directed by Follies‘ Warren Carlyle.

Standouts in the ensemble include the heartbreaking Christiane Noll (Ragtime) as Charlie’s mom, Hannah, and Wayne Alan Wilcox as his sibling, Sydney; Michael McCormick as both Chaplin’s drunkard father and his filmmaking mentor, Mack Sennett; and Jen Colella, who steals the show as Red-baiting gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (eat your heart out, Nikki Finke!). The cast’s only weak link is Erin Mackey as fourth wife Oona O’Neill, although the fault may lie more in the flippant script; when Chaplin asks if her father is the Nobel Prize-winner Eugene O’Neill, she too-easily cracks that he was honored “for his plays, not for his ice-cold heart.”

Perhaps some of these rough spots can be smoothed over before the show’s Sept. 10 opening. If so—and in light of The Artist making silent movies buzzworthy again—Chaplin: The Musical could trigger a “gold rush” at the box office.

Would you see Chaplin: The Musical? Speak now, or forever hold your peace!

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