The show begins with a man on a tightrope. That man is none other than the titular Charlie Chaplin, balanced in mid-air above a doubtful crowd, while the tightrope serves as a good—if trite—metaphor for the precarious balancing act of Hollywood fame.
In Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan’s “Chaplin: The Musical,” which premieres at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Sept. 10, Rob McClure (who portrays the title character) and the rest of the cast dance, leap, and waddle across the stage in shades of grey, white, and black, under Warren Carlyle’s direction. The costumes, designed by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, add not only to Golden Age elegance but to London dreariness, contributing to seamless transitions between events occurring inside and outside of Chaplin’s mind. The musical’s success in conveying the great entertainer’s story is enhanced by a clapperboard-bearing ensemble member who comes onstage before key scenes begin—a device that feels organic in the Hollywood atmosphere.
In fact, most of the first act feels natural and well-paced, charting the course from Chaplin’s abandonment at boyhood by his mentally ill mother, Hannah (portrayed to sympathetic effect by Christiane Noll), to his rise to renown as the Little Tramp. One of the musical’s highlights is the sequence in which Chaplin comes up with the idea for his iconic on-screen persona. As he recalls strangers he saw on the streets as a child, the actors who played these individuals earlier in the show appear onstage, dimly lit. McClure, grabbing a jacket from one man and a bowler hat from another, nails the transformation from apprehensive Englishman to bona fide comedian with finesse. Add a waddle and a cane wave, and the Tramp is born. Act One’s scenes and songs are a mélange of glitz, glamour, and introspection which nicely capture the headiness of fame.
The second act, although far from stagnant, moves with a staccato heaviness.
The champagne bubbles have been popped, and Chaplin finds himself amid a mess of divorce settlements and political accusations, trailed by relentless gossip monger Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella). Colella’s performance is powerfully entrancing, especially during a solo number about Chaplin’s downfall. Hopper is the very sort of character that audience members love to hate, as she is cruel, yet refreshingly sassy.
The near-jarring power of Act Two is softened by a frothy love duet between Chaplin and his fourth, and final, wife, Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey) and by one campy catharsis of a final number, in which characters from Chaplin’s past, many of them dead, return à la “Les Mis” to honor the performer.
“Chaplin: The Musical” succeeds, overall, in conveying Chaplin’s story, but has moments that teeter, perhaps too far, toward the absurd, the sentimental, or the dry. Nonetheless, McClure walks Curtis and Meehan’s tightrope with such charisma and presence from start to finish that the Tramp himself would bow and tip a (bowler) hat.