After thwarted attempts in 1981 (by Ernest Kinoy, Lee Goldsmith, and Roger Anderson) and 1983 (by Anthony Newley and Stanley Ralph Ross) to bring Chaplin’s life to Broadway, a Little Tramp musical has finally arrived on the Great White Way … but to unappreciative notices – except for a universally acclaimed star turn by leading actor Rob McClure. This version of the screen star’s life was presented at the 2006 NYMF (as Behind the Limelight) and had its world premiere in 2010 at La Jolla (as Limelight). Now titled Chaplin, its creative team includes Christopher Curtis (book, lyrics, music), Thomas Meehan (book), Warren Carlyle (direction, choreography), Beowulf Boritt (sets), Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), Ken Billington (lights), Scott Lehrer and Drew Levy (sound), Jon Driscoll (video & projections), Paul Huntley (wigs & hair), Angelina Avallone (makeup), Bryan Perri (music direction), and Larry Hochman (orchestrations).
The cast includes Rob McClure (Charlie Chaplin), Jim Borstelmann (Alf Reeves), Jenn Colella (Hedda Hopper), Erin Mackey (Oona O’Neill), Michael McCormick (Mack Sennett, etc.), Christiane Noll (Hannah Chaplin), Zachary Unger (Young Charlie, etc.), and Wayne Alan Wilcox (Sydney Chaplin)
Ben Brantley (N.Y. Times): With all this metamovie stuff – and the arty gray color scheme, which extends to the makeup – it’s not always possible to know where you are in relation to time or reality. Yet a stolidly conventional heart beats beneath these airy trappings: a by-the-book rags-to-riches-to-loneliness saga, underscored by vaporous music … and vaguely period dances. … [McClure] does a lovely impersonation of the Little Tramp that captures the heartbreaking grace in that character’s embattled dignity. Delivering the anguished lines of the self-destructive egotist that Chaplin became, he perversely tends to fade into the gray. This may be a mercy, given the lines he has to say. It’s hard not to sympathize with the character who tells him, “I miss the days when you didn’t speak.”
Joe Dziemianowicz (N.Y. Daily News): 3 out of 5 stars. In the musical Chaplin, sets and costumes come in black and white. Unfortunately, so does the storytelling in this cut-and-dried bio about the complicated silent-film legend Charlie Chaplin. The book … could have used more imagination and a stronger point of view. Curtis’ songs, much-reprised, don’t give the show much lift either. … Despite modest material, Rob McClure gives a nimble star turn as guided by director-choreographer Warren Carlyle. … The way Chaplin stands now, it’s modestly entertaining. But in a story in which Chaplin often talks about the magic of the flickers, one yearns for more flickers of magic.
Erik Haagensen (Back Stage): It’s hard to know where to begin with Chaplin, the dismally dull musical. … The most the writing aspires to is mediocrity, which it rarely if ever achieves, something Warren Carlyle’s busy direction and choreography can’t disguise. The one performance of note comes from the extremely gifted Rob McClure in the title role, but the show’s relentless shopworn sentimentality erodes even his fine work. … Chaplin merely dashes from notable event to notable event with nary a thought to why the story is being told. The show squanders huge hunks of stage time on nonessential numbers. … Curtis’ largely pastiche music is a pale imitation of better and more original composers, while his lyrics never met a cliché or a false rhyme they didn’t like (my favorite was “Chaplin”/“happen”).
Steve Suskin (Variety): The most treacherous part of producing a biomusical about an iconic performer is finding an actor who can convincingly handle the role. The producers of Chaplin … have passed that difficult test, with relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp. But they have come up all thumbs, alas, in the writing and staging departments. … The act-one transformation scene, in which the panto comic devises his film persona, is especially effective. Elsewhere, though, the show’s creatives have transformed Charlie’s tale into just another Hollywood story of stardom today, oblivion tomorrow.
Elisabeth Vincentelli (N.Y. Post): 2-1/2 stars out of 4. The show about the silent-film icon is packed with so many biographical details that it seems like a PowerPoint presentation with songs. But hey, at least it looks good! … At least things move along zippily under the direction of Warren Carlyle, who also choreographed … but there’s a dearth of showstopping numbers. The agile McClure captures Chaplin’s physical trademarks – particularly the Little Tramp’s duck gait – and he’s very likable, but things move too fast for him to flesh out his character.