Some bad musicals make you angry. Ghost was one, mostly due to the arrogance of the pop-music dilettantes who blithely thought that, just because they could write hit songs, they could automatically write an effective musical-theater score as well. Other bad musicals are tedious. The excruciating Lestat certainly fit that bill, although that show also had the dilettante factor going against it.
Still other bad musicals are just plain sad. The new Broadway musical Chaplin unfortunately falls into that category.
The main culprits here are an instantly forgettable score by Christopher Curtis, and an overly ambitious yet undernourished book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan. Not helping matters much are the utilitarian direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle. Add in a production design (costume design by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, scenic design by Beowulf Boritt) that has admittedly gorgeous details but that adds up to a dull wash of monochrome, and you have a musical that's just about as colorless, both literally and figuratively, as the show's Playbill cover (see left).
In fact, pretty much the only thing that Chaplin has going for it is a stellar cast of Broadway notables and newcomers, particularly the wonderfully animated and eminently appealing Rob McClure in the title role. McClure was likewise dazzling in the Ray Bolger role in the Encores production of Where's Charley? two seasons ago, and, make no mistake, he is a major talent, someone deserving of a far better show than the grim and lifeless Chaplin.
For a show that purports to be about the man behind the legend, Chaplin tells us very little about Charlie Chaplin as a person. The show traffics in the rather hackneyed trope of the crying clown. The only dramatic motor the book supplies for Chaplin and his quest for fame is that his mother became mentally ill while he was very young and spent most of her life in a series of asylums. Somehow this is supposed to inform and justify everything that comes later. Well, that and Chaplin's notorious marital woes, although it's not really clear what Chaplin's mommy trouble has to do with his lady trouble, at least not as enumerated here.
In an effort to punch up the rather leaden book, director Warren Carlyle kind of overdoses on the borrowed metaphors. The show begins with a black-and-white film of Chaplin, which then transitions to actor McClure walking on a high-wire. The result is visually stunning, but the metaphor is anything but inspired, having been used in the musical Barnum and the movie "All That Jazz," among many others. We also have the boxing match representing Chaplin's lady troubles, used to much better effect in the original version of the musical Reefer Madness. We have gossip columnist Hedda Hopper manipulating Charlie like a marionette, which seems stolen from the movie of Chicago. And the show's design is almost entirely in black and white, with a sudden rush of color at the very end, a devise used more effectively in the stage version of Dracula. In other words, Carlyle's directorial concept seems to have been, "Just add metaphors and stir."
It could be that librettists Curtis and Meehan have simply tried to do too much with one show. The plot to Chaplin is pretty much cradle-to-grave, and as a result too much of the plot feels thin and rushed, which is funny because it also seems to move so painfully slowly. The plot to Chaplin doesn't thicken, it drips. What's more, the writers make a number of questionable choices as to what the show should focus on. At the end of act one, we're subjected to a rather pointless and joyless Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, after which the act ends without any dramatic tension. Then, in act two, the show ultimately becomes about Hedda Hopper's vendetta against Chaplin. This fracas ends with Chaplin in European exile, mostly because of his communist sympathies. But the show would have you believe it was simply because Chaplin wouldn't grant Hopper an interview, which trivializes what for Chaplin was a deeply held conviction.
The songs in Chaplin make little lasting impression, whether it's bland ballads ("What Only Love Can See") or generic uptempo numbers ("Life Can Be Like the Movies," "Just Another Day in Hollywood"). The songs feature an unfortunate series of lazy rhymes, such as "journey/lonely," "amazing/changing," "sorrow/follow," and "heard/world." Charlie of course gets his "I want" song, but all he really reveals is a vague desire to become "somebody other than me." Chaplin also gets a sort of overly belt-y 11 o'clock number called "Where Are All the People?," which was just a bit too reminiscent of "Who Can I Turn To?" from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Coincidentally, Greasepaint was co-written by Anthony Newley, who toured the U.S. in another failed attempt at a Chaplin musical in 1983.
In addition to the sensationally talented McClure, the cast of Chaplin also includes some of the best female musical-theater talent that Broadway has to offer. Jenn Colella is marvelous as always as Hedda Hopper and manages to convey far more depth and variation than the authors have provided in the material. The lovely Christiane Noll is quite touching as Chaplin's mother, but again the part is painfully under-written. And Erin Mackey manages to bring nuance to the part of Oona O'Neill, Chaplin's fourth wife, idealized here to the point of sainthood. (Also eminently worthy of mention is the adorable little scene stealer Zachary Unger playing Chaplin as a young boy.) Talented performers all, although it's hard to imagine that Chaplin will provide them with a lasting employment opportunity.