Sorry Charlie: Broadway's 'Chaplin' unworthy of its subject

ChaplinA.jpgA Broadway musical about a man who became famous for being silent seems bizarrely intriguing.

Instead "Chaplin" the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is just dull.

The musical traces what should be the fascinating life of Charlie Chaplin. Just shy of a century since he made his first film, the musical tells the story of Chaplin's life over seven decades, from Dickensian England to Hollywood excess of the teens to banishment from the United States.

Rob McClure as Chaplin is brilliant. 

If only the vehicle were more so.

McClure (Broadway's "Where's Charley?," "Avenue Q") is in great voice, and he moves gracefully and acrobatically, as Chaplin did, and infuses the tormented man with the perfect amount of glee, sadness and eventually, imperiousness.

The musical itself, however, is wanting.

Hit musicals deliver at least a few numbers where the audience cheers. There's at least one dance number where patrons clap. Not so here.

The reaction was justifiably lukewarm, though the audience (including Al Pacino behind me, who did his best to slink in and was all but under his seat at intermission, trying to not draw attention to himself) gave the obligatory ovation at the end. 

Yet there are no moments of Wow! And that's a shame. You can feel the cast trying, and McClure succeeding, but he can't overcome Christopher Curtis' lackluster book, music and lyrics.

The best numbers are Chaplin's "Where Are All the People?" toward the end, and Hedda Hopper's "All Falls Down."

Jenn Colella ("The Good Wife") as the acidic gossip columnist is a standout, and despite hers and McClure's considerable efforts, the play never excites. It's not that a musical about Chaplin or old Hollywood or any chapter in history can't be great; they often are. But this makes the mistake of thinking the audience is unsophisticated.

Chaplin1.jpgHow else to explain the too persistent flashbacks and refrains of songs? Really, in the same act we do not need reminders of what happened half an hour ago. Among the great aspects of live theater is that the audience is paying attention.

Born into poverty in England, Chaplin had a very tough childhood. His mother sang in pubs; his father was a drunk who abandoned them. One night while singing, his mum forgot the words and he took over.

Chaplin was never off the stage afterward. While in London, movie pioneer Mack Sennett saw Chaplin and wired him a deal -- $150 a week, an amazing sum of money then.

Eventually, he would make the most anyone in Hollywood ever did -- $1 million. This was in the 1910s.

His mother was already in an asylum. He left his only sibling, Sydney ( Wayne Alan Wilcox) and best pal, Alf (the ever dependable Jim Borstelmann) and took a boat and slow train to Hollywoodland. Sennett almost sacks him immediately, then Chaplin devises his signature character, the Little Tramp.

The tramp, whom he played in multiple movies, made him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Women threw themselves at him, and he apparently bedded much of Hollywood -- particularly young Hollywood -- and bestowed lavish divorce settlements on three wives.

Eventually, he married Oona O'Neill ( Erin Mackey, "Gossip Girl"), and in exile from the United States (because of his politics and morals) lived in Switzerland. There, they had eight children. Chaplin continued to work, though far less frequently and successfully.

And a century after he discovered "the magic" in "flickers," those who want to lose themselves in a celebration of his genius would do better to rent one of those early films.
  
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus