Chaplin, a new Broadway musical, has pratfalls and tightrope walking and pies in the face. It also has the biggest comedy cliché of all: the tears of a clown. Has there ever been a book or play or movie about a great comedian that didn’t dwell on the deprived childhood that sent the adult performer into spasms of sadness?
In this unfolding of the archetype we have Charlie Chaplin: born in 1889, to a drunken father and a mentally ill mother who was forced to cast him aside. That abandonment echoes forlornly through this two-act evening, with music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis, and book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan.
As Chaplin, Rob McClure has a fetching period charm. With his dark, buttoned-on eyes and nimble movement, McClure shows us Chaplin’s transformation from desperate London music-hall performer to giant of Hollywood talkies, and the presto-changeo invention of the little tramp.
As hard-working as McClure is, however, there is only so much he can do to fill in the by-numbers biographical framework the show imposes. Without much plot to compel our interest, Chaplin unfolds as a series of This Is Your Life scenes. Charlie meets his first, deceitful wife, Mildred Harris; forms his own production company; indulges his taste for fruit vert, an appetite that culminates in his final marriage to the 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, appealingly played by Erin Mackey.
By the time we reach the time of his exile to Switzerland during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, the musical’s framework has jettisoned much sense of development and settled into the depiction of Charlie’s happy times with Oona. They had eight children, the last born when Chaplin was 73.
In terms of songs, Chaplin is stronger in its first half than in its second. Music-hall melodies waft through the theatre agreeably and oompah waltzes inject the evening with a steady pulse. Exiting the theatre, however, I felt all the long-ago sonic charms whisked away by the first sound of hip-pop pouring out of a passing taxi.
What remains indelible is the visual imprint of the production, directed with verve by Warren Carlyle. Beowulf Boritt’s sets and Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes give black-and-white sophistication a good name, while Ken Billington’s precise lighting bathes the other designers’ handiwork in shimmering tones.