We’ve all seen worse musicals than Chaplin, a slow-paced and irritatingly sentimental biography of film icon Charlie Chaplin that first played New York six years ago as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. But how did this utterly amateurish musical, which has the taste of a cup of coffee packed with about a dozen packets of sugar, make it all the way to Broadway?
The songs of Christopher Curtis, who has previously written theme songs for the Discovery Channel, are occasionally tuneful but mostly tacky. Still, they are far better than the show’s repetitive, melodramatic and strange book.
Three-time Tony winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray), who co-wrote the book along with Curtis, ought to have done better. But for all we know, his work on the project may have consisted of merely adding a few one-liners.
A straightforward act one observes Chaplin’s rise to fame and fortune as the Little Tramp in broad brushstrokes. Act two, on the other hand, mainly depicts an increasingly political Chaplin courting his fourth wife Oona O’Neill and waging battle with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
At least Chaplin provides a starring role to a very nimble and heartfelt Rob McClure, who is best known as a replacement cast member in Avenue Q and for his cross-dressing turn in the Encores! production of Where’s Charley?
McClure handles the role’s physical demands with aplomb, including walking a tightrope, roller-skating and doing Chaplin’s trademark shuffle. He is far better at portraying a young, insecure Chaplin discovering his clowning abilities than an older, less sympathetic and stressed-out Chaplin.
The medium-sized cast is rounded out by a number of Broadway regulars, including Christiane Noll (Ragtime), who does her best with the strange role of Chaplin’s mentally unstable mother; an energetic Michael McCormick (Curtains) as silent film comedy visionary Mack Sennett; and the quirky Jenn Colella (High Fidelity) as Hopper.
In spite of a strange ensemble ballet with a chorus line of figures all dressed like the Little Tramp (who proceed to do the “Roll Dance” from The Gold Rush), director-choreographer Warren Carlyle provides a somewhat professional staging designed with a black-and-white motif.
The scenery is noticeably skimpy, consisting mainly of banners and a few video projections alongside a brick wall.
Fifty years ago, a creaky, melodramatic musical like Chaplin might have been able to eke out a run of a few months. Yet even if Chaplin were a well-crafted musical, it would still be a mostly futile enterprise. Who wants to see McClure impersonate Chaplin when all of Chaplin’s most famous films are so readily available on DVD and Blue-ray?