Can a musical biography ever really be satisfying for an intelligent, adult theatergoer? I doubt it. There have been precious few successful ones over the years (Evita, Barnum), and they tend to go for pageantry and pizzazz over probing psychological drama — with good reason. Musicals deal in broad strokes, with simple story lines and emotional progress that can be charted in bold primary colors. Reducing a famous person’s life to a few dozen pages of dialogue, jammed between musical numbers, nearly always means resorting to shorthand. And that shorthand gives the subject short shrift.
The latest case study is Chaplin, the first new show of the Broadway season. The musical has come to New York with relatively little fanfare or expectations — it was developed at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, has a cast of mostly unknowns and a songwriter making his Broadway debut. Yet it isn’t bad: slickly produced, nicely acted, perfectly enjoyable if you don’t set your sights too high. Still, it isn’t quite up to its near impossible task.
(PHOTOS: The Life and Times of Charlie Chaplin)
First, the good news. Rob McClure, the compact, tousle-haired actor who plays Chaplin, does a fine job of transforming himself into the Little Tramp (he’s got the walk, the sheepish grin, the dexterity with a bowler hat) while still embodying a convincing, flesh-and-blood character. The score — music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis, whose sketchy credits include theme songs for the Discovery Channel — may be derivative, but it is often bright and catchy, and it does a good job of mimicking the styles of the changing eras, from bouncy ragtime and turn-of-the-century waltzes, to jazzy, ’30s-era Tin Pan Alley.
Warren Carlyle’s staging is modest but resourceful, using the image of Charlie on a tightrope (a neat bit of theatrical sleight of hand) as a visual and metaphorical theme throughout. And the book (by Curtis, along with old Broadway hand Thomas Meehan) is a decent Cliff’s Notes version of Chaplin’s life: his rise from the London music halls to silent film star, his string of underage wives, his left-wing activities in the 1930s and ’40s and his final exile from the U.S. in the early ’50s.
The trouble is that everything that happens seems vaguely secondhand: an assemblage of well-worn clichés from Hollywood biopics. We get the usual lonely-child-discovers-his-love-of-entertaining scenes, as Charlie learns how to imitate the drunks and swells he sees on the streets of London. He gets separated from his mentally disturbed mother (Christiane Noll) at an early age — a separation that provides an all-too-facile Rosebud for nearly everything that follows. When Charlie first gets an offer from Hollywood, people scoff that movies are just a “passing fad.” Charlie disagrees: “I just saw one of those flicker shows,” he exclaims, “and I’m telling you, they’re magical!” Guess who’s right.
Mack Sennett (Michael McCormick), his first director in Hollywood, is your garden-variety hot-headed but soft-hearted boss. Chaplin’s red-baiting antagonists in the 1940s are boiled down to one character, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who is played (by Jenn Colella) as if Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday had taken mean pills. And surely there was more to the relationship between Charlie and his brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox), who becomes his business manager, than the cozy brother act we see here.
The show divides fairly neatly in half: Chaplin’s up-by-the-bootstraps rise to fame, and his late-career fall into controversy, scandal and exile. Two problems: The clichés in the first half don’t really prepare us for the clichés in the second half. And the story doesn’t have a satisfactory ending. For a feel-good climax, it has to resort to that old standby, an Academy Awards tribute — Chaplin’s 1972 special Oscar, for which he returned to America for the first time in 20 years. It’s another sign of how thoroughly the musical depends on the tropes of Hollywood — a town where no cinematic genius is so disgraced that he can’t be redeemed by the Irving Thalberg Award.