There have been very few great or even very good biographical musicals. FUNNY GIRL, a delightful, tuneful show, became legendary through Barbra Streisand's performance, though the show outlasted her by a year or so (comedienne Mimi Hines took over). GYPSY is as close to perfect as a musical can get. One reason both these shows were joys to watch is that they are celebrations of theater. It may be theater past -- vaudeville, burlesque, the Ziegfeld Follies, but it is theater. CHAPLIN tells the story of a legendary film star and has the intrinsic problems of theater pieces about movie stars -- the performances were screen performances that don't necessarily translate to the stage. When the show wants to present one of Chaplin's classic performances, a screen has to come down and we get a Chaplin film or a facsimile thereof. The show's creators should have looked at the history of MACK AND MABEL, an unsuccessful Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical from the 1970s about Mack Sennett and the making of silent film comedies. There isn't anything theatrical about the shooting of a film scene, so however good the score is (good in the case of MACK AND MABEL, bland in the case of CHAPLIN), the show is trapped in an alien world. One can make a good musical out of a movie (though I wish folks would try it less often), but movie making does not make a good musical .
Charlie Chaplin's story is a fascinating one. A Jewish waif from the London slums turns into the biggest Hollywood star of his day. Dickens would have loved it (probably not the Jewish part). Silent movie star gets in trouble when he starts talking politics. The trouble is that Chaplin's love life was a little creepy. The show begins with Chaplin as a kid in London and within ten minutes has him in Hollywood. It would have been interesting to have some representation of the stage pantomime act that caught Mack Sennett's eye. With some weird chronology, the show takes Chaplin to his winning of a special Oscar in 1972, shortly before his death. The problem is that the creators of the show (Book, Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan, Music and lyrics Christopher Curtis) haven't stuck to one style. At first, the show seems to be a highly stylized, a la Bob Fosse. Everything is in black, white and shades of grey. The performers are wearing white face paint to look like silent movie clowns. The best moments are played in this highly theatrical style. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper's (Jenn Collela) red-baiting of Chaplin, the strongest moment in the show and the one that gets the biggest ovation, is like something out of CHICAGO, as is the stylized boxing match in which Chaplin gets knocked out financially by his first three young wives. The stylized approach is one good way to go with a biographical musical -- think of BARNUM (direction Joe Layton) and THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES (direction Tommy Tune) -- but it has to be consistent and the musical staging has to be inventive (Warren Carlyle's isn't). There are, however, realistic, book-heavy scenes in CHAPLIN that demand a different kind of response from the audience. Long dialogues between Chaplin and his brother Sydney (played by the handsome but dull Wayne Alan Wilcox), slow down the proceedings. It's always a good idea to stick to the theatrical conventions one has established in the first ten minutes or so.
Successful biographical musicals are vehicles for charismatic performers -- Merman and her successors in GYPSY (Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, even the miscast Bernadette Peters), Streisand in FUNNY GIRL, Jim Dale in BARNUM, Keith Carradine in THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES. In the last two cases, brilliant staging and winning star turns redeemed so-so material. Rob McClure, who plays Charlie Chaplin, is a good, hard-working performer in a role that demands a star turn. He works very hard (real stars don't look like they're working hard) but he's not a star and only a star could totally redeem CHAPLIN with its mediocre score (Christopher Curtis's songs sound like Marvin Hamlisch on a bad day and I never thought much of Hamlisch as a composer, with a little Anthony Newley thrown in) and confused style. McClure has an irritating, strained high tenor that had my fillings aching. In all fairness to McClure, I'm not sure who could have made this part work. Musical comedy stars are thin on the ground -- current musical performers are now trained to be replaceable parts. Roles -- things one brings one's personality to -- are now appropriately called "tracks". Stars are eccentric and eccentrics are not easily put into a computer program.
I didn't dislike CHAPLIN. I saw it from a good seat at a very low price, thanks to my TDF membership. Parts were enjoyable. It looked beautiful. It wasn't a disaster, but I couldn't give it more than a B-.
One pet peeve -- when I go to a musical, I want to see the orchestra. It's part of the excitement of a live theatrical event. It's why we old timers applauded at the sight of that large orchestra at the Lincoln Center revival of SOUTH PACIFIC and why folks applaud the band so enthusiastically at the City Center Encores productions. I don't want them on stage a la ONCE, but I want them visible in the pit. The CHAPLIN band is piped in from backstage or perhaps the basement. They might as well have been recorded.
CHAPLIN. Ethel Barrymore Theatre. October 18, 2012.