Hey everybody. Michael C here fresh from seeing one of the legends of the cinema sing and dance his way through his life story.
At one point during Chaplin, The Musical which opens tonight on Broadway, a troop of Little Tramps march on stage to perform a chorus line version of the classic dinner roll dance from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. It was at this point that I began to suspect that the show had not quite licked the problem of how to adapt the life and times of the silent film genius to the Great White Way.
Trying to cram anybody’s life into a coherent story structure is always going to be a daunting task. Chaplin, The Musical attempts to compensate for the familiarity of their approach with heaping helpings of Broadway razzle-dazzle. And while there is an undeniable thrill to watching performers executing in real time the kind of stunt work that Chaplin would take dozens of takes to perfect, it isn’t nearly enough to distract from the fact that we are once again being pulled through the same old biopic paces.
Robert Downey Jr.’s uncanny screen performance in the title role was the main selling point of Richard Attenborough’s disappointing Chaplin (1992), and the same could be said of Rob McClure’s work as Sir Charles on stage. McClure is splendidly effective when performing Chaplin-esque pantomime during Charlie’s pre-fame days and manages to convincingly evoke the enormous appeal of the Little Tramp. His recreation of that most famous of movie characters holds up even when a giant screen is produced on stage to incorporate the actor into some of Chaplin’s most famous images. Yet McClure’s efforts are never able to gather momentum as Chaplin, The Musical proceeds haphazardly from event to event, in the familiar fashion of unfocused biopics. From Chaplin's series of young gold-digging brides to the controversy over his outspoken leftist politics. From his struggle to adjust to the advent of sound to the torment of dealing with his institutionalized mother, who acts as the story’s Rosebud, the motivation behind all his choices artistic and personal. Chaplin often veers dangerously close to Walk Hard territory in moments like the one where Mack Sennett commands Chaplin to go from onscreen novice to comedic genius literally overnight or be fired.
Chaplin could have compensated for its well-worn material with some dynamic musical numbers, but unfortunately the songs by Christopher Curtis- though enjoyable enough while being performed – evaporate from memory upon reentering brightness of Times Square. It’s difficult to recall any song specific to Charlie Chaplin. Rather, we get generic showbiz material and love ballads that could be from a dozen other Hollywood stories.
That said, it's hard to imagine a Chaplin fan isn’t going to have some fun at this show, despite all its flaws. The choreography by Warren Carlyle, fresh off his smashing work on Follies, is consistently inventive and the set decoration and costumes do a nice job evoking the black and white world of Chaplin’s films. Most important of all, the creative team succeed in expressing their deep love of the subject, even as one wishes they had endeavored to find a fresher approach. As tiresome as all the movie to stage adaptations have become I can’t help but think they would’ve had more success simply making a musical version of Modern Times or City Lights. As it stands, Chaplin, The Musical fails to conquer that central question that faces all biographies, be they musicals, movies or otherwise: Why isn’t the viewer’s time better spent experiencing the work which made the subject famous in the first place?