September 23, 2012
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
On September 10th, a delightful new musical named Chaplin opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Based on the life of iconic silent film star, Charlie Chaplin, this musical tells the story of the man behind “the Tramp”, depicting his impoverished upbringing in London, his life as a young vaudeville performer in England and his rise to fame in America, his political interests and subsequent exile from the United States, and finally, his welcome back into the United States with an honorary Academy Award in 1972.
Synopsis: Growing up in England at the end of the 19th century, Charlie Chaplin is raised by an alcoholic, absentee father and a mentally unstable mother, who (despite her psychiatric shortcomings) teaches her son to closely observe the people around him before she is permanently institutionalized. Charlie, who had developed an interest in entertaining, began work as a music hall performer at a young age, later becoming quite successful as a comedy and vaudeville performer in England. It wasn’t long before Hollywood noticed this great talent and Charlie was offered a job with Keystone Studios, thus launching his successful career as a silent film actor in the United States. As Chaplin became more and more successful, he became the target of vindictive gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, who felt snubbed by the actor when he declined an interview. Fueled by Hedda Hopper’s lies and exaggerations, his desire to assert political beliefs in his films led to the assumption that he was a communist, culminating in his exile from the United States. The musical also recounts Chaplin’s affinity for younger women, his four marriages, and his happy marriage with his fourth and final wife, Oona O’Neill. In addition to finding happiness with Oona, Chaplin is welcomed back into the United States with an honorary Academy Award in 1972.
Comments: In order for a show like Chaplin to work, there needs to be that special actor who is able to successfully embody the character of Charlie Chaplin. Rob McClure is that special actor. I admit that I did not know who Rob McClure was prior to seeing Chaplin last week; but after seeing his performance, I will never forget him. He has mastered physical comedy, and with every facial expression and mannerism, he becomes more believable as Charlie Chaplin. While his visual comedy and mimicry skills are comparable to Chaplin’s, I was most impressed with his acting and his ability to support the arc of the story as Charlie transitions from young, insecure actor to successful film star to divorcee to political activist/accused communist to exiled actor, and finally, celebrated Academy Award winner. And while his physical interpretation of Chaplin is spot-on, his portrayal of the more emotional side of this complex person is what makes his performance truly special... and Tony Award worthy, I might add. Bravo, Rob McClure.
The supporting cast was also excellent. Christiane Noll had great stage presence as Charlie’s flawed but influential mother, and sang beautifully. Wayne Alan Wilcox and Erin Mackey were very well-cast as Sidney Chaplin and Oona O’Neill respectively. Jenn Colella gave a stand-out performance as the villainous Hedda Hopper and her Act II number, “All Falls Down”, was one of the musical highlights of the show. She can really belt out a song.
What did I love about Chaplin? What sticks out in my mind a week later? I loved that the sets, costumes, and make-up were done in a black and white theme, as if to give the audience the impression of watching a Chaplin movie. I thought this was creative and aesthetically pleasing to watch on stage. I also loved the way Charlie’s transition into the Tramp was presented on stage, with flashbacks to childhood memories of his mother and the people they watched together. I loved the incredible talent that is Rob McClure. I loved Jenn Colella’s insanely powerful singing voice. I particularly liked the scenes between Christiane Noll and Zachary Unger who played Young Charlie. These sometimes-heartbreaking, sometimes-joyful scenes really conveyed Charlie’s love for his mother and his devastation when she was institutionalized. I loved the supporting cast; while this is show about Charlie Chaplin, his story cannot be told without the people/characters that influenced his life. The supporting cast was really stellar. I loved Christopher Curtis’ music, the most memorable songs being “Look At All the People”, “Just Another Day in Hollywood”, “All Falls Down”, and “This Man”.
I hope this will give you many reasons to check out Chaplin at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.