ROB McCLURE SCORES A PERSONAL TRIUMPH IN A PAINT-BY-NUMBERS VERSION OF THE SCREEN LEGEND'S LONG AND TURBULENT LIFE
BY HENRY EDWARDS
“Chaplin: The Musical,” a recent arrival at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is the latest attempt to dramatize the life story of a man who may very well have been the greatest and most beloved star in motion picture history.
The tempting subject has previously defeated writer-star-director Anthony Newley and writer Earnest Kinoy, whose Chaplin musicals never made it to Broadway, along with Sir Richard Attenborough, the director of an overly reverential, badly reviewed bio pic starring Robert Downey as Charlie. Budgeted at $31 million, Attenborough's effort scored less than $10 million domestically.
The film bit off a lot than it could chew successfully as does "Chaplin," written by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan with a score by Curtis.Placing a whopping 47 of the screen legend's 88 years on view, the musical skims its way through a Cliff's Notes version of the Chaplin's horrific South London childhood and success as a child performer in Britain's turn-of-the-twentieth-century music halls, followed by his unprecedented triumph in Hollywood.
The journey also includes four marriages, the births of 11 children and a sex scandal.
And then there's Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, whose column had an estimated daily readership of 35 million. For more than ten years, Hopper, in conjunction with right-wing organizations and federal authorities, endeavored to destroy Chaplin because of his support for liberal and leftist causes, status in the United States as a resident non-citizen and his sexual and marital relationships.
Finally, in 1952, after Chaplin set out for Europe, the Attorney General barred his reentry to the United States unless the actor could prove his "moral worth." Eventually, choosing not to fight even though he would have probably won, Chaplin elected to become a permanent exile.
Twenty years would pass before he set foot in the United States again. Returning to receive a special Academy Award, Chaplin was greeted with a 12-minute standing ovation, the longest in Academy Awards history.
It's an amazing story, and every section of it could been have been transformed into a fascinating show. And yet ”Chaplin” insists upon rendering almost all of it in strictly conventional terms without any hint of complexity and coated with show business clichés.
That is not to say that “Chaplin” is not entertaining; it is entertaining the way theatrical comfort food can entertain you when you're in the mood not to be challenged.
And this particular dose of theatrical comfort is especially easy to swallow thanks to Rob McClure's performance in the title role.
McClure previously appeared on Broadway as an understudy in the 2002 revival of “I’m Not Rappaport” and as a replacement in “Avenue Q,” and as the title character in the Encores! Series production of “Where’s Charley?”
"Chaplin" transforms him into a bona fide musical-theater star.
The most magical moment in McClure's magical performance occurs early in the evening. Given a single last chance by director Mack Sennett to be funny on camera, the young music hall comedian assembles an oddball costume consisting of baggy trousers, size 14 shoes each placed on the wrong foot, a frayed short cutaway tight coat, an undersize derby, a sporty prop bamboo cane and a false jet black mustache. With the addition of a waddling penguin-like walk, the character of the Little Tramp was spontaneously and accidentally born.
Chaplin would develop and refine this character over the next 25 years, going on to create an Everyman with whom everyone could—and did—identify. Capriciously knocked about by life, the Little Tramp maintained his dignity and self-respect no matter what happened, always picking himself up in the hope that things would be better, generating pathos as he went on his way but never pity.
None of this is in the writing, but McClure is so believable as Chaplin the performer he suggests it anyway. He also possesses the physical skills that allow him to to be able to walk a tightrope, perform backflips and rollar skate wearing a blindfold. And although we would like to see a lot more of the onscreen Chaplin, the actor breathes life into the cornball material that comprises too much of the show, zestfully belts Cross's derivative power ballads and gingerly steps his way through director/choreographer Warren Carlyle's uninspired dances.
This is exceptionally difficult material, and it’s defeated everyone who’s tackled it. For that matter, shows dealing with the travails of making silent films have not fared any better. Jerrry Herman and Michael Stewart’s “Mack & Mabel,” which dealt with the tumultuous romantic relationship between Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, one of his biggest stars, the Leroy Anderson/Joan Ford/Jean Kerr/Walter Kerr musical ”Goldilocks” and “The Vamp” with Carol Channing as a silent-screen comedy queen number among the flops.
Of all things, the most successful effort was Jerome Robbins’ madcap "Bathing Beauty Ballet” from “High Button Shoes.”
Robbins knew silent comedy was funny, and he staged the dance in the manner of a riotous Mack Sennett silent slapstick Keystone Cops chase film, featuring a small army of Keystone-style cops, bathing beauties, oddballs and a gorilla(!).
"Chaplin" could have used a dose of the deceased choreographer's imagination.