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Chaplin the Musical

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My mother loved gossip in general and celebrity gossip in particular, so Charlie Chaplin kept her mind pretty busy with his four marriages and scores of affairs and accusations of paternity by teenagers. Charlie's penchant for "little women" gave him the reputation of "chicken hawk," which my mother pronounced with her well-plucked eyebrows together in a scowl. When he married his fourth wife, Oona O'Neill, he was fifty-four, she seventeen, and they went on to have eight children, my mother claimed that Chaplin used monkey glands. Did she mean a kind of Viagra concocted from primates or did she think that some poor gorilla was forced to donate his endocrine system to Chaplin? My mother's science was colorful, but not accurate.

When I saw Chaplin the Musical at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, Rob McClure was so perfectly Chaplin that if I had been lucky enough to be able to, I might have been tempted to ask him. McClure is as brilliant a Chaplin as Chaplin himself: every body movement, every facial gesture.

Wayne Alan Wilcox's subtle performance as Charlie's brother, Sydney, made a perfect foil for Charlie's frenetic energy.

And oh, maybe some critics feel it too sentimental, too schmaltzy, but I wept when nine-year-old Zachary Unger did as he played the young Chaplin being wrenched from his mother, Hannah (Christine Noll). In the lady's room during intermission, everyone was still choked up from his performance and we all know, ladies, that the ladies room is where you get the best reviews.

Jenn Colella's performance of the formidable Hedda Hopper, who lowered the curtain on Chaplin's career, hit the right note just as the songs that she belted out did. We are reminded how much power she yielded when we see that she had a direct line to the Department of Justice.

The set was mostly black and white like Chaplin's movies and we're treated to footage from some of his classics. My favorite was Chaplin delivering his speech in The Great Dictator while McClure, standing before the screen mimics him with hysterical gestures and a parody of German.

Okay, okay, there are flaws. Three-time Tony Award winner Christopher Curtis assisted by Thomas Meehan overstuffed the play with scenes that hurried us through all Chaplin's 88 years. What they chose to focus on was the effect of Charlie's abandonment by his mother, but although we see Chaplin's mother becoming mentally ill, but we never get the kind of details my mother would have brought out. It's never mentioned that Hannah Chaplin contracted syphilis working as a prostitute. And there was no mention of McCarthyism that was part of the reason for Chaplin living out the rest of his life in Switzerland. (How my mother railed against those "Commies!") Instead, Curtis wrote unnecessary scenes such as the Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest and the one of Charlie already in Switzerland, tormented because no one came to see his show. I remained strangely unmoved by the scene of Charlie's visit with his mother at the rest home before she died. And I didn't walk away with one song that stayed with me to hum on the LIRR back home.

Despite some of the shortcomings of the play, the audience was on its feet, cheering because no applause felt loud enough for the gift of being in Charlie's presence again through McClure's performance. I could smell my mother's Evening in Paris cologne and sense that she was hurrahing right next to me, eager to tell me some other tidbit.