You might think that a musical about Charlie Chaplin would be funny, but there is surprisingly little laughter in the melancholy case of “Chaplin,” which opened on Monday at the Barrymore Theater.
A mostly lugubrious musical account of the great screen comedian’s troubled life, “Chaplin” boasts a terrific leading performance by star-in-the-making Rob McClure, vivid supporting turns by Christiane Noll and Jenn Colella, as well as an energetic production staged with some inventiveness by director-choreographer Warren Carlyle.
Whether those attributes overcome a generally downbeat story and a fleetingly pretty but wan score remains to be seen at the Broadway box office. The show intermittently flickers to life but ultimately it probably will leave many customers wishing for a brighter, happier experience.
Chaplin’s times are hazily framed by composer-lyricist Christopher Curtis and co-writer Thomas Meehan as a movie being made about the legendary artist, but their concept dissolves into a straightforward reduction of his biography.
Reared in the London slums, Chaplin rises to international fame in slapstick film epics as the Little Tramp but always is haunted by the memory of his beloved mother Hannah (a touching Christiane Noll), who became insane when he was still a tyke. In spite of unparalleled success, Chaplin is plagued by a succession of gold-digging wives, a growing rift with his brother Sydney and a scandalous paternity suit.
Eventually Chaplin is branded a Communist sympathizer in the years following the Second World War. After decades of exile in Switzerland, where he at least enjoyed a happy domestic life with Oona O’Neill and their eight kids, Chaplin finally is honored in America as a great artist. (Ta-dah.)
Curtis’ agreeable tunes sometimes can be vivacious, as in the razzamatazz-y fox-trot “Life Can Be Like the Movies,” but the score is not sufficiently sophisticated to support – let alone illuminate – such a sorrowful saga. Boosted by an exuberant turn by Michael McCormick as Mack Sennett, some of the early Hollywood years are amusingly done. The scene when Chaplin discovers his Little Tramp persona even produces a thrill, thanks in part to Rob McClure’s performance.
But the patchy second act mostly is a downer, although Jenn Colella is electrifying as the malicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper whose vengeful “All Fall Down” solo set against a remorseless “Modern Times” dance number nearly stops the show.
Best of all, there’s Rob McClure, the New Milford native and former Paper Mill Playhouse intern, who delivers a lovely and assured portrayal of Chaplin. McClure sings well, emotes capably and even walks a tightrope as Chaplin. He effectively evokes Chaplin’s whimsical charm in his Little Tramp character. If McClure’s prosaic material were stronger, both this talented actor and the second-rate vehicle that he drives so confidently would make a more memorable impression.