Despite the reviews, Chaplin: The Musical is truly nobody’s disgrace. The heartbreak is that, with the exception of newly “introduced” star Rob McClure’s uncanny turn in the title role, it’s nobody’s triumph either.
The good news seems to be that for an audience not looking for much else other than that uncanny emulation and willing to tolerate a light overview of film legend Charlie Chaplin’s life and career (book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan), with a competent song-score (Christopher Curtis), expert staging and choreography (Warren Carlyle) and absolutely nothing significant in the way of revelation or dramatic/thematic point of view, Chaplin: The Musical can be a satisfying evening. However, for anyone demanding of a musical an aspiration toward what musical theatre can do at its best, the lack of theme and perspective makes it pretty thin stuff.
An overview of a life is almost never a good idea for a musical, because you can’t concentrate on the kind of overall quest or objective that drives musical theatre action. Because of (I assume) the influence of Thomas Meehan—the go-to co-author for musicals that need structural help—Chaplin’s focus doesn’t sprawl as much as it otherwise might. By filtering the action through the prism of Chaplin’s ambition and the toll it takes on his personal life, he (and Curtis) at least keep on a steady road. But because they have nothing to say about Chaplin’s choices and because the “plot” isn’t a story so much as a surface biographical summary, the musical never takes root in the soul and doesn’t resonate with the human condition the way a serious-minded musical ought.
The score is catchy and derivative, and given its traditional diction, its lyrics are bewilderingly lackadaisical about perfect rhyme; nor do the songs really cover story ground—they tend to comment on what we already know, or serve as background to compressed passage-of-time sequences. But it’s attractive enough, and with one particular number (“All Falls Down”) for the “villainess”, notorious Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella), better than that. (It should be noted here that Ms. Colella has the unenviable task of bringing down the house with a song not for a character we “love to hate,” but who is genuinely loathsome; her ability to bring it on home and create the evening’s one authentic showstopper anyway is not to be taken lightly—she is, as much as Mr. McClure, a performer of uncanny [more accurately super-canny] skill.) The rest of the supporting cast is just fine. And, as I suggested at the top, and McClure truly does channel Chaplin with almost supernatural authenticity; there are none of those “off-by-a-hair” tells to compromise the illusion.
I wish I had more to say than that, but the show’s lack of depth leaves me with a similar dearth of salient observation. Chaplin: The Musical is what it is and might have been better; but its prime force, composer-lyricist-colibrettist Christopher Curtis hasn’t (yet) the grasp of craft and art to have made of it more than he’s delivered. So you take it on its own terms, you decide to settle, or you feel undernourished. And so it goes. Or doesn’t…
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