When you open the playbill for the new musical Chaplin on Broadway, it says “introducing Rob McClure as Chaplin” and what an introduction it is. After seeing the preview (opening Sept 10), I went home and read everything I could on Mr. McClure. The numerous auditions he had to get the role out at La Jolla Playhouse two years ago before it transferred. (This after Euan Morton from Taboo had originally done the reading, but was doing another show at the same time: his loss was Broadway’s gain.) How McClure had walked away from acting and was teaching again in New Jersey before going after the role. The history of what he did was a wonderful read. And what he gives on the stage is magic. We all expect ‘the tramp’ and he shows us his transformation into that character. But he also has a fully realized persona of Charlie and audiences get to see that growth. He did something I wasn't certain could happen: made me care about Charlie Chaplin. And if I could write a love letter to the man about just how spectacular his performance is, I'd do it. (I'm sure his wife is in for many letters coming his way.)
The show has other ‘introductions’ besides McClure. The new composer/lyricist Christopher Curtis has nurtured his baby for years even when producers have brought in Broadway hitters like Thomas Meehan to work on the script. While some of the songs didn't send me out humming, others are very nice and fit the tone of the evening. But being a former BMI Musical Theater student – the non perfect rhymes really got to me after a while. Warren Carlyle was originally just the choreographer, but now has taken over as director as well. It is great to see so much dancing in a show and there are moments where you see a wonderful concept coming from Mr. Carlyle (the use of movie markers to start scenes) – but it feels like those concepts change at intermission and we suddenly see something completely different being 'tried out'. I found myself wishing they had thought in terms of other bio-musicals such as The Will Rogers Follies when dealing with so much material from Chaplin’s life to cram into 2 and a half hours. (Both acts actually start to feel long and I’m not sure anything else will be shaved prior to opening next Monday.)
Bio musicals are hard. You are attempting to show so much and not sure what to remove, alter, etc. I love the use of Chaplin’s mother (played beautifully by Christiane Noll) as well as the adorable boy playing young Chaplin. But trying to fit in the many (MANY) women that Chaplin has been with (the man had an affinity for younger woman) starts to get monotonous on stage. I was in shock to find the 2nd to final curtain call went to the wife that stayed with him until his death. Why was I shocked? Because she doesn’t appear until midway through Act II and right as her storyline started, I was already finding myself growing tired. (This is not a comment on Erin Mackey who plays Oona...it was more about where it comes in the course of the show.)
The other large issue with the show is dealing with why Chaplin was banned from the US. It was when so many in Hollywood were thought of to be communist. I love how they go into a performer becoming ‘political’ as that is right out of the playbooks of today. (Insert a recent star/TV personality that has turned audiences away simply because of their politics.) But while Hedda Hopper (played by the oh so talented Jenn Colella) was known to go after Chaplin for his remarks, the musical tends to turn her into Cruella Deville. A shame as I’ve read in some forums that hers is the part getting the most cuts during the preview period.
All of this said the show is beautiful to look at. The set by Beowulf Borritt, costumes by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting by Ken Billington create an amazing atmosphere to tell this story. (The use of old film and images as set pieces is so successfully done in this piece as compared to other recent shows.) I only think I would have enjoyed the ‘coldness’ of it more had the story itself pulled me in just a tad harder.
But Rob McClure (and the little boy) both brought a tear to my eye, a smile to my face, and made me want to leap to my feet when most times I stay seated during a curtain call. So I end this by saying even with all the other things I’ve pointed out, McClure’s performance is one that we will all want to say we witnessed on Broadway. Kudos to the producers for not doing stunt casting with a big name star. Because we are getting to see a star in the making on the stage at the Barrymore Theatre and sometimes, that is exactly what Broadway is all about.