Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rob McClure Channels Chaplin

Photo credit: Joan Marcus
I saw Chaplin the Musical with my friend Yair Solan, who runs the first and only Charley Chase website and knows far more about silent films than I do. I mention this because not only did he provide me with additional insights and historical context, but I found it interesting that though he was looking at the show more for its portrayal of Charlie Chaplin and I more for whether it succeeded as a piece of theater, we came away with similar thoughts about where the show worked and didn't.

In one of the first scenes of the show, a director with a clapperboard says, "Chaplin. Scene one. Take one," and I assumed the filming of a movie called Chaplin (confusing because such a movie already exists) was being used to frame the show, but this device is only used once more and then disappears.

Chaplin the Musical spans 1894 to 1972, or the bulk of his life (1889 to 1977). That's a lot to tackle in two-and-a-half hours and book writers Christopher Curtis and three-time Tony winner Thomas Meehan did a fairly good job of keeping it focused--the first act on Chaplin's (Rob McClure) rise to fame and how being separated from his mother Hannah (Christiane Noll) when she was taken to an insane asylum affected his work and the second on his fall as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella) accuses him of being a communist. However, there are some unnecessary scenes such as the long act one closer "The Look-a-Like Contest"--which seems like an excuse to have a lot of dancing Chaplins.

Though some numbers like "The Look-a-Like Contest" don't propel the plot forward, there is a lot to enjoy in Christopher Curtis's score, especially the overture/prologue, which pulls the audience into the silent film world immediately. Scenic designer Beowulf Borritt, costume designers Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, lighting designer Ken Billington, projection designer Jon Driscoll, and make-up designer Angelina Avallone have come as close to creating a black-and-white movie on a stage as possible and it's lovely, though I could have done without the influx of color at the end.

The show works best when recreating scenes from Chaplin's films. Rob McClure more than imitates Charlie Chaplin, though he has the Little Tramp's mannerisms down. He's funny in his own right, and he never feels anything other than authentic when showing us the charming, difficult, selfish, and troubled sides of Chaplin, even when the show gets heavy-handed. There's a long theater season ahead of us, but I hope that McClure is remembered come award season in the spring.

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