At the crucial emotional juncture of "Chaplin," the new musical about the Englishman who became, for a good while, the most famous movie star in the world, the character Charlie Chaplin sings of the pain that flows from declining interest in his work. "Now the world's changed to color, so what can you do?" goes Christopher Curtis' thudding lyric. "You're still black and white, so now you're old news."
Well, that's a deflating moment that crystallizes the fundamental problem at the Barrymore Theatre. Despite an enigmatic, career-making performance from Rob McClure in the title role, an earnest turn from Wayne Alan Wilcox as his tag-along brother Sydney, and an engaging performance from Erin Mackey as Chaplin's late-in-life love Oona, "Chaplin" is a musical where the material is just not up to the complexity of its enigmatic subject. It's impossible to believe that the creator of such masterpieces as "Modern Times" and "The Gold Rush" would express himself in such prosaic, cliched terms. He may not have spoken in his works, but he surely was thinking up a storm with every twitch of his Tramp's eyebrows.
Aside from the crippling limitations of its music and lyrics, "Chaplin," which features a biographical book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan and was directed with great efficiency but not enough depth by Warren Carlyle, ultimately disappoints because it makes the easier choice of picking an external villain in the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, rather than really probing deeply into the dark side of Chaplin himself, whose clout and interest in very young women led to a string of wives, lawsuits and even an attempted prosecution under the Mann Act, designed to prevent human trafficking.
It's true that Hopper, a notoriously nasty namer of names in the McCarthy era, went after Chaplin's lefty politics and sleazy love life, leading to his being denied a re-entry permit into the United States in the early 1950s. But in this show, Jenn Collella's Hedda warbles like Cruella De Vil, determined to take down Chaplin from his Hollywood pedestal, apparently in a fit of pique after he refuses to appear on her radio show. Some broad simplifications were perhaps inevitable; but this is all too melodramatic, especially since Chaplin had enough demons to serve as his own antagonist.
You might think that the trickiest and most daunting thing about a stage musical about Chaplin would be trying to replicate the actual, famous comedy sequences. Thanks to McClure, whose performance deftly captures the crucial intersection of physical precision and the darkness of the comedian's soul, those all-too-brief scenes are actually the strongest and most appealing aspects of the show, especially since the designer, Beowulf Borritt, has come up with a plethora of clever tricks to segue vintage film and live performance.
McClure, we quickly grasp, has Chaplin's skills down cold and thus one craves seeing more of the process which this fine performer surely could replicate in considerable detail. Yet he never really gets the chance to dissect his chap doing what he most famously did — his brilliant observed and hilarious silent movies. The show has a huge biographical sweep as its agenda and Chaplin's life and times were busy, so it glosses over most of the great silent shorts and features, even though they are, to a large extent, what people would want to see.
The book of the musical spends most of its time probing Chaplin's lifelong pain over his inability to communicate with his mentally ill mother (played, with some poignancy if not full clarity, by Christiane Noll), a onetime music-hall performer who put her cute son on the London stage, if only to cover her own inadequacies. That's fair enough; it explains a lot about Chaplin. And, in what's by far the best segment of the show, McClure sings a touching number to his mother about his life, after she asks him, caught in the grip of memory loss, what happened to her little boy. It will resonate with many folks with struggling elderly parents. But it's a brief oasis of stillness and intensity in a newsreel swirl.
"Chaplin" plays on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York; 212-239-6200 or chaplinbroadway.com
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