From England, to Hollywood, to the Great White Way – come back to a time when a laugh was the most important thing, when the world shined a little brighter, even if it was in black and white. Chaplin the Musical provides a charming insight into one of history’s greatest comedians, and what you may not know is that The Tramp was only the beginning. And, as with any great dish, Chaplin provides that secret ingredient that hits the Great White Way with a spice that has the audience coming back for more.
The show tells the rags to riches story of Charlie Chaplin (Rob McClure) and his break into the movie business. He journey’s to Hollywood to take a chance at the “flickers,” leaving behind his brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox) and his mother, Hannah (Christiane Noll). Chaplin, becomes swept up in the radically different environment he has found himself in and must now create “something funny” to soothe his new director, the ever demanding Sennett McGraney (Michael McCormick). And thus, The Tramp is born, and thrives – despite Chaplin’s failed marriages, and ever changing contracts. The show takes the audience through Chaplin’s rise to fame and his fall during the Red Scare. At the head of the accusations against Chaplin sits Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella), a budding Hollywood reporter who is furious for Chaplin’s refusal to be a guest on her radio show. Yet, through all the turns and tribulations Chaplin finds love in Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey) and their loves holds fast as the two face the end of an era and a whole new world of laughs.
Rob McClure (Avenue Q) leads this talented cast as Charlie Chaplin. Multitalented does not begin to describe, McClure. It is more accurate to say that this wonderful actor has so many tricks up his sleeves that one could wonder why they aren’t bigger. Between chair juggling, tap dancing on roller skates, and tight rope walking, McClure could have been a show all on his own; and, not to mention, the detailed physicality that McClure displayed when performing as The Tramp. It was if Chaplin himself was on stage, which is the whole point, no? His vocal quality, while not the ringing tenor that Broadway has become so used to hearing, provided a new, interesting sound that gave life to an otherwise silent story. McClure excels in his performance and gives the audience a taste of one of America’s greatest comedic minds.
At the head of the Chaplin family stands Hannah Chaplin, the mother, played by the fantastic Christiane Noll (Urinetown). Noll gave a beautiful depiction of Chaplin’s mentally ill mother, becoming a winding country road that had a new discovery at each bend. Having much of her story told in flashback, Noll portrayed a decline into insanity that tore at the heart. She had a warm, loving touch to her voice that provided a consistent motherly touch to both Chaplin and the audience. When she wept, the audience wept, and what incredible talent it is to have the audience experience what the character experiences, not only physically, but emotionally as well. Brava. Comind out of the same household was actor Wayne Alan Wilcox (The Normal Heart) who provides the supporting net to McClure as Sydney Chaplin. Throughout the show Wilcox becomes the rock that supplies a sense of wisdom in a chaotic world, the classic vanilla scoop in this black and white sundae. His depth and passion provided a strong contrast to the otherwise shallow world of the movie business. Wilcox provided passion and dedication to the role, both strong characteristics in the character of Sydney himself. The audience walked away remembering Chaplin’s brother, who symbolized his roots and provided the path back to reality for the artist.
Hedda Hopper, played by Jenn Colella (High Fidelity), provided a new meaning to the term villain; Colella was lively, mischievous, and a fun to watch. Keeping the audience engaged with her luminous vocal quality. Colella sits in that ever famous category of the villain we love to hate. In the simplest terms, Jenn Colella was fun – fun to watch, fun to listen to, fun to be involved with. She was engaging, pulling the audience into her point of view. The pure power she conveyed as Hedda Hopper was pure magic, and her voice just added dimension to an admirable character. Her performance was a true wonder. Leveling out the evil with some kindness was Erin Mackey (Anything Goes) as Oona O’Neill. She offset Chaplin’s comedic chaos with a sweet, innocent wisdom that was refreshing to see amongst the cast. Not only was her vocal talent light, and seemingly effortless, but the chemistry between Mackey and McClure was magical. Able to take serious dialogue and seamlessly mix in comedic banter, McClure and Mackey have the makings of a wonderful Broadway couple.
The cherry on top of this magnificent sundae would have to be Zachary Unger (Off-Broadway’s Merrily We Roll Along), who gave a remarkable performance as a Young Charlie. The ability to reach the deep emotional levels at such a young age was incredibly impressive, and it doesn’t hurt that he is cute as a button! Unger is a talented young man and we look forward to seeing where his promising career will lead him.
Christopher Curtis (television’s A Wedding Story) and Thomas Meehan (The Producers and Hairspray) provided the Book, Music and Lyrics. The thing that was great was that unlike any other new musical on Broadway, Chaplin’s music did not over power the depth of the book. Although a lot of the music wasn't memorable, the music and book were very well put together. Warran Carlyle (Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway) directed and choreographed this visually stunning production. Although the choreography seemed out of place at first, it created a great way to show passing time and traditions; but, the big show stopping number was the Charlie Chaplin Look Alike Contest, where Carlyle through in tons Little Tramp acts such as: the hat spinning on the cane, causing havoc on rolling skates, and the ever famous Dancing Little Man. Job well done!
The design team for Chaplin appeared to have an incredible collaboration going on because the tech was truly inspiring. When thinking about Charlie Chaplin, people tend to thinks about not only silent movies, but black and white silent movies. Everything from the huge set pieces to the minor detail of the drinks was put in black, whites and grays. Beowulf Borritt (Rock of Ages) was responsible for this inspiring set. Borritt created two worlds inside of each other, One where the "Making of Chaplin" was being filmed in a studio, but also the entire world inside following Chaplin through life. Ken Billington (Scottsboro Boys) was the light designer. Even the lighting was done in all "Black and White" – with pale blues and ambers to keep the audience drawn in. The costumes were done by Martin Paklendinaz (Nice Work If You Can Get It) and Amy Clark (Second Stage’s Animals Out of Paper), and were stunning throughout the entire show. Paklendinaz should be proud that his last show came out so beautifully, Broadway is going to miss your exceptional designs.
"Come see Charlie Chaplin!" His rise and fall will make millions laugh, cry, and stand with admiration. Chaplin is here to stay, so don't miss out and head to the Ethel Barrymore Theater to catch the "Little Tramp!"