Charlie Chaplin lived the kind of life by which performing arts stories are often inspired: a hardscrabble, British childhood, absentee parents, meteoric rise in Hollywood, world fame, successive wives, scandalous affairs, an enormous ego, exile to Europe based on trumped up political charges and finally, as an old man, forgiveness (or embarrassment) by the US government and formal appreciation by the Hollywood community. Really, can’t you just visualize it?
An image of Rob McClure as The Little Tramp fills a large screen hanging above the stage. Because the video is cleverly looped, our hero seems to teeter veeeery slightly. When houselights go out, the scene around him dissolves and the figure recreates iconic, balletic moves we associate with Chaplin. As his foot rises behind him, so does the screen revealing the live actor on a tightrope in the same position. It’s well done. Characters from various points in his life look up singing “Whatcha Gonna Do (when it all falls down?)” The broadcasting of Chaplin’s eventual “fall from grace” is extremely obvious, but has mass appeal.
Our story begins on the streets of Kennington with the cast wearing striking, black, white and grey-scale period costume and makeup. Chaplin’s mother, Hannah (Christiane Noll) encourages her boy (the splendid Zachary Unger) to make a game of guessing about people as they pass. The child emulates a few. Suddenly he’s an adolescent busker. Talked by his older brother Syd (Wayne Alan Wilcox), into accepting a job offer from Mack Sennett (Michael McCormick), the youngster goes Hollywood where he morphs from stage performer asking about motivation (this doesn’t ring true) to a film actor. “There are no characters in Hollywood!” he’s unceremoniously informed at Keystone studio. Under pressure to be funny, Chaplin develops the tramp. This is handled with a delicate and appealing conceit.
“I wanted everything to be a contradiction,” the real Chaplin said. “I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and makeup made me feel the person he was.”
Radical differences between what works: imaginative visual parentheses and some excellent performances, and what doesn’t work: a weak, generic book and an unmemorable score laced with trite phrases and unplumbed feelings frustrate almost immediately. In what I assume is an effort to show its influence, memories of Chaplin’s childhood lurch through otherwise fluid scenes. The episodes don’t, however, seem to relate to the moment on which they’re intruding.
Classic films are sometimes reenacted beautifully utilizing video, sets and players. 1921’s The Kid co-starring the very young Jackie Coogan, portrays The Little Tramp discovering an abandoned baby with gratitude and delight, while Chaplin the director browbeats his young cast member into needed hysteria. They’re also sometimes poorly realized. A moving image of cogs and wheels unmistakably indicates Modern Times, his 1936 film about the Great Depression. The riotously funny chaos that occurs when his character can’t keep up with an assembly line is lost to columns of Sennett bathing beauties holding ropes in confusing simulation of a conveyer belt. Bathing beauties?! Chaplin’s parroting Hitler in front of a newsreel for 1940’s controversial The Great Dictator is immensely effective, but the following scene from a stadium podium lacks impact.
Chaplin becomes a public and financial success, brings his family over, and cuts a swathe through the youngest, prettiest women he can find. The first of four marriages proved as unproductive as his 17 year-old bride, Mildred Harris (Hayley Podschun) who lied about being pregnant, yet gets disproportionate attention here. Wives two and three, actresses Lita Grey and Paulette Goddard, appear only in a divorce number. All three women are angry ciphers. We’re given no sense of Chaplin’s insatiable libido and barely a hint of his relationships.
Writing in Act Two is better. Encounters with his last and lasting wife, Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey) offer sudden moving believability. Debutante of the Year and daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, Oona, who was 36 years his junior, bore Chaplin eight children. It was, she affirmed, a great love match. The actors have terrific chemistry. Dialogue is meaningful.
It’s in this act, as well, that a vengeful Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella) is instrumental in getting Chaplin accused of un-American activities by Hoover and McCarthy. “I’m not a communist I’m a humanist,” he declares, assuming himself untouchable. Lies and propaganda tore apart his life and then-struggling career. In this show, the breach is lyrically made to seem as if it had something to do with his being creatively out of step. “The world has changed to color and you’re black and white, the world has changed to sound and you’re silent.” Our acrobat falls from the wire. “Where are all the people that once loved me?” he sings.
When we see Chaplin again, he’s being saluted at the 1972 Academy Awards. Weary and cowed, he hopes the evening will be about forgiveness. The live finale is in sudden, surprising color. Voices one by one contribute to a river of love. A video epilogue ends the piece with deft flourish.
Rob McClure’s Chaplin embodies the pathos-filled dignity of the Little Tramp. He moves with charm and grace, creates wonderfully hapless facial expressions, and endears the character to his audience with familiar sympathy. Vocals are also appealing. McClure is less convincing as the smug, egocentric Chaplin, but fully inhabits later scenes with Oona O’Neill. I attribute this to the vicissitudes of the book, not the capable thespian.
Erin Mackey (Oona O’Neill) is first rate. From the moment she comes on stage, the actress creates a whole character—confident, patrician, and complicated. Though this is partly due to better writing, much can be ascribed to the winning performer. Tenderness is made palpable. Mackey has a simply lovely singing voice.
Jenn Colella (Hedda Hopper) creates an aptly melodramatic and bitchy characterization. Her break out number is strong and skilled.
Zachary Unger (Chaplin as a boy/Jackie Coogan) is both adorable and completely credible. There’s nothing show biz about his presence, reactions, or speech. I look forward to watching his career.
Christopher Curtis’ Music and Lyrics lack depth, specificity, and originality. His Book, with veteran Thomas Meehan, feels like a work in progress: Act One is haphazard, Act Two is coming together. Dramatization of a life filled with emotional upheaval thus rarely wrenches the heart except with the appearance of the Little Tramp himself. A sense of what this piece might’ve been is pervasive.
Director/ Choreographer Warren Carlyle does little to distinguish his characters from one another. His choreography disappointingly bears next to no resemblance to the dances of the era. With the exception of a chorus line of Chaplins manipulating potatoes on forks, it’s almost all generic. There are, however, intermittently wonderful concepts: the use of video throughout actually enriches rather than detracts from the piece (like the earlier disaster Ghost which was eaten alive by its visuals). Chaplin’s creating the tramp is a particularly artful sequence. Some of the movie recreations are splendid.
Jon Driscoll’s Video/Projection Design is terrific. It creates a multi-layered set in conjunction with actual, physical pieces, integrates as background when “film” is being screened onstage, and leads us in and out of the piece with artistry. Images are extremely well chosen. All this is accomplished without once interfering with the story or action.
Beowulf Boritt’s Set Design is effectively minimal and productively collaborative. Costume Design by Amy Clark/Martin Pakledinaz keeps beautifully to the color concept with deftly chosen patterns and period silhouettes. When the stage is filled with Chaplins, however, difference in outfitting is dissonant.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Music & Lyrics by Christopher Curtis
Book by Thomas Meehan
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Starring Rob McClure
Ethel Barrymore Theater
243 West 47th Street