NEW YORK — The new musical "Chaplin" opens with the sight of the Little Tramp balanced on a tightrope high above the stage. It's a fitting metaphor for the show itself – a wobbly, high stakes attempt to avoid gravity. Guess what happens? Gravity wins.
What opened Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre tries hard to be something to everyone and in the process becomes less than anything. The great Charlie Chaplin deserves better.
It's technically a musical, but one without a single memorable song. It's also a play that veers into the psychological – apparently Chaplin had more mommy issues than Oedipus – but the drama is interrupted by silly dance breaks. It's another hammy attempt on a Broadway stage to describe a famous life through the lens of a camera, a device that even its creators seem half-hearted about.
Rob McClure in the title role certainly deserves more than this to work with. He has clearly put his heart and soul into playing Chaplin – he not only sings and acts with feeling, he also tightropes, roller-skates blindfolded, does a backflip without spilling any of his drink, and waddles with a cane like a man who has studied hours of flickering footage.
But save for one sublime scene in which the various inspirations behind Chaplin's decision to embody the Little Tramp is revealed, the show McClure leads is equal parts flat, overwrought and tiresome.
The story by Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis is a linear, two-hour biography that takes us from Chaplin's poor childhood in London to his staggering stardom and then self-imposed exile thanks to accusations of un-American activities. Spinning newspaper headlines projected on the back wall baby feed you the plot in case you doze off.
Professionally, Chaplin confronts the challenge of talkies and then color. Personally, he confronts his own reckless fondness for young women and inability to get past being abandoned by his parents.
It touches on his relationship with his brother (Wayne Alan Wilcox) several lovers (including a sweet Erin Mackey as his third wife, Oona O'Neill) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella, another bright spot), who destroys Chaplin by painting him a Commie.
"I'm gonna wipe the smile/From the famous little clown," she sings. If she had a mustache, she'd twirl it.
All the while, there are excruciating flashbacks of a young Chaplin begging for his mother's love from a valiant Christiane Noll. But then, suddenly, a bunch of Chaplins in little mustaches will hit the stage to dance furiously while balancing bowler hats on canes. All night, the show zooms incoherently from anguish to zany. The nadir has to be a mock boxing match between Chaplin and his ex-wives. Nothing funnier than domestic violence, huh?
The musical ends with Chaplin getting a standing-ovation at the 1972 Academy Awards. "I've come to realize that life is not a movie," he concludes in words he never actually said during the real show. "You can't go back and edit it." Such arrogance to reality is unforgivable. It's also pretty trite. Someone needs to go back and edit this.
So ponderous is the staging – the director and choreographer is Warren Carlyle – that it took a full 30 minutes for the first real cheer to emerge from the audience. For a story about a man who delighted millions without having the benefit of sound? Unacceptable.
Add to this unhappy story the fact that Curtis, who also wrote the music and lyrics, has been unable to create anything approximating an original, hummable tune.
In the last, predictable scene, a child playing Chaplin meets the adult Chaplin and gives him a rose. The circle is complete. All is good in the world. "The world's bound to love him/When they see the Little Tramp," the cast sings.
Not if the world see this.