Thursday night I caught a preview performance of Chaplin: The Musical, a new Broadway show starring newcomer Rob McClure that was first developed at the La Jolla Playhouse under the title Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin. That first draft did not get particularly good reviews, but that was a couple of years ago.
It's been a breakthrough year for physical comedy in the mass entertainment world. First The Artist wins five Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and best actor. And last weekend One Man, Two Guvnors concluded a pretty much sold-out run on Broadway, with James Corden's comic servant of two masters beating out Philip Seymour Hoffman's battered salesman, Willy Loman, for the Tony best actor award.
Could a trifecta be in the works?
Chaplin: The Musical opens this Monday, and while it may not sound like sure-fire Broadway fare, no one predicted those other two pieces to appeal to such a wide audience either. And the book is by Thomas Meehan, whose name I didn't know but probably should, since he's won three Tony Awards — for mega hits Hairspray, The Producers, and Annie (the latter re-opening on Broadway next month).
Here's a promo:
Of all the usual preview articles, this one from the NY Times about Rob McClure's preparations for the role is the best. It actually talks about the movement and physical comedy elements:
Here's an excerpt:
The show demands a veritable comedy decathlon of stunts, spills and specialty bits. “There’s been a bit of a Chaplin boot camp, with tightrope and roller-skating and violin lessons,” Mr. McClure said, in a tone more of exhilaration than complaint. “Every time I think, ‘Oh God, how am I going to learn all this?,’ I remember he did it. Chaplin did it all.” Mr. McClure said. “But once you put on the hat and the mustache and the cane, you can’t screw with that. You need to get that right, because anybody who cares about this coming in is looking for something very specific.”
Mr. McClure became a detective of Chaplin’s film performances, studying them not only for how-to's but why-to's. “When I was first working on the Little Tramp shuffle, I noticed he would have these little bursts of energy, so as he’s waddling, a shoulder will pop or a knee will kick out,” Mr. McClure said.
To go beyond mere imitation, he kept watching and eventually struck gold. A particular moment in Chaplin’s film The Circus caught Mr. McClure’s eye. “The Tramp gets turned down by a woman, and as he waddles away, the shoulder and the knee go,” Mr. McClure recalled. “I realized he’s brushing it off,” with each twitch essentially saying, “Shake it off, shake it off, Charlie.” Mr. McClure came to understand that Chaplin “had a physical vocabulary that was ultimately specific. Nothing was for silliness alone.”
You can read the whole article here.
So how was it? (you might be asking)
It was entertaining, it was solid, it was sentimental, it offered a lot for your money — assuming that like me you buy half-price tickets — and it got an enthusiastic standing ovation from Thursday night's sold-out audience. I have no idea if it will get the kind of reviews and buzz essential to a long Broadway run, but will let you know in a week or so once all of the notices are in.
For me the show's main challenge is in compressing Chaplin's long and tumultuous life into two hours of plot. With movie biopics we often end up getting a cartoon version of a genius' life that rarely penetrates the nature of that genius, and this musical is no exception. His uniqueness is simply his "talent," and it doesn't get much deeper than that. Characters are combined, events oversimplified. Chaplin's penchant for teenage girls and the political witch hunt that drove him out of the country are treated rather superficially. As history it's ultimately unsatisfying, though the results can still be entertaining. Think Barnum — a big hit that played a lot more loosely with the facts than does Chaplin. But Barnum had better songs than Chaplin, which I have a feeling will be another factor dampening the critics' enthusiasm.
|The opening curtain|
The choreography of Warren Carlyle (Follies; Hugh Jackman), who also directed, does a decent job of infusing the whole show with some nice bits. As in so many Chaplin films, the onstage world is a topsy-turvy place where bottles, canes, plates, wine glasses, chairs, and roller skates all lead a precarious existence and equilibrium cannot be taken for granted. Large-scale dance numbers that stick in my mind are the Chaplin impersonation contest, the Hall of Mirrors (from The Circus), the Mack Sennett pie fight, and the assembly line of ladies based on the factory scene in Modern Times, though I thought the first two of these could have been developed more.
And was Rob McClure up to the task of impersonating Chaplin?
Yes, very much so. He can act and he can even sing, but he's at his best when in motion. He's picked up some solid skills — though (unlike Chaplin in The Circus) he is tethered for the wirewalking segments. In terms of movement, at least to my eye McClure nails the Little Tramp character and, if anything, I kept wishing they would give him juicier comedy material to impress with. The guy deserves his own show stopper and the musical needs more belly laughs. But all in all, a kinetic and intelligent performance, and you physical comedians out there need no other reason to try to catch this show. As a whole, Chaplin: The Musical does not totally dazzle, but Mc Clure is worth the price of admission.