Chaplin the Musical is a labor of love by those who clearly appreciate, know, and get Charlie Chaplin in his complexity. As someone who has been a fan for most of her life, shows just about every single one of his Little Tramp films to her fourth grade class ever year, and is now working on a Little Tramp children's book, it was delightful to see how they managed to include so many smart little elements in this musical biography of his life.
The black and white setting, lighting, costumes, and make-up for the bulk of the show was very apt for a musical about a silent film star and made the vibrant red and colors of the final scene, when Chaplin returned to receive a special Academy Award in the 1970s, moving indeed.
The performers were uniformly excellent, but it was Rob McClure who was outstanding. I'd read about his preparations for this role, but was still skeptical until he came on and began. His movements were absolutely spot-on like Chaplin's. His voice was remarkably close too. I appreciated most of all the subtle movements that anyone who had watched Chaplin in action many times as I have would appreciate. The little shrugs, smirks, kicks, and the like. He was so good when in the Little Tramp character that I wanted more!
Successfully collapsing a life-like Chaplin's into an entertaining two and a half hour theatrical event is challenging indeed, but Christopher Curtis, Thomas Meehan, and Warren Carlyle pull it off. I'm glad though that I read the small note in the program beforehand:
"The authors with the blessings of the Chaplin family, wish it to be known that a certain amount of dramatic license was taken in the course of turning the long and enormously complicated life of Charles Chaplin into a musical play. However, the spirit and true essence of the great man's remarkable career has been scrupulously retained."
For there were changes that those of us who know his story well would have noticed -- say, a slight alteration in the way he was first invited by Mack Sennett to come to work in the movies or the scene in which he first tried out his Little Tramp character. It is a highly sympathetic and respectful rendering of Chaplin's life. While I've seen some reviewers question the musical number where Chaplin goes into a boxing ring against three of his ex-wives (they see it as uncomfortably referencing abuse) I thought it was a clever reference to Chaplin's boxing scenes in some of his movies, notably in City Lights. My companion was unfamiliar with his life and found it fascinating. I was, of course, a bit skeptical of song and dance for a silent film star, but by and large it worked -- although I have to admit that none of the songs stood out to me in the way aspects of the staging did.A few favorite touches of mine:
- Pretty much every time McClure played the Tramp. He was fantastic at this!
- The early scene where Young Charlie (played beautifully by Zachary Unger) sings when his mother can't.
- The movie-making scene at the Sennett Studio (even though it isn't at all the way it actually happened but is a sort of compression of various aspects of that studio so worked well for this picky Chaplin know-it-all).
- The roll dance (from The Gold Rush) in a chorus line in "The Look-a-Like Contest."
- Charlie watching Hitler and then mimicking him as he prepares to do The Great Dictator.
- The various beautifully replicated scenes from his movies, both those done live and those done as small films.
- The final scene when we see Charlie going INTO the movie to walk off down the road as he did so often. A beautifully done effect.
A variation of this post is at educating alice.