Thursday, September 20, 2012

Theater Review: Chaplin

Film Star's Troubled Life Makes for a Troubled Musical
By Lauren Yarger
Silent film star Charlie Chaplin's troubled life is brought to the Broadway stage in a new musical, starring Rob McClure as the comedic genius haunted by a tragic past, failed marriages and ostracization by the Hollywood community from which he so desperately sought approval.

Turning the story into Chaplin is a somewhat troubled effort itself, however.

Let's start with what's good. McClure gives a very strong performance (he created the role at La Jolla Playhouse). It's early in the season to predict, and I hate to admit that I will be surprised if this show is still running at TONY time, but expect the fabulous McClure to receive a Best Actor nomination. He embodies Chaplin not only emotionally, but physically as well as he twirls a cane, balances on a tightrope (with help from Flying by Foy and a tightrope trainer) and shuffles along in a terrific recreation of The Little Tramp.

At times, he magically walks from the stage into a scene from one of Chaplin's movies (Jon Driscoll, video/projection design; Ken Billington lighting design; Scott Lehrer, Drew Levy, sound design). Christiane Noll plays his mother, Hannah, a saloon singer who introduces him to the entertainment world. Sent to a work house when Hannah is hospitalized for mental illness, Charlie is later discovered by film producer Mack Sennett (Michael McCormick) and lands in Hollywood.

Soon, he is Box Office gold and he brings friend Alf Reeves (Jim Borstelmann) and his brother, Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox) over from London to join him in the business. He also brings Hannah over and sets her up in a nursing care facility, but refuses to see her  since she can't remember who he is.

Syd proves himself a terrific manager and soon has Charlie earning the biggest paychecks in Hollywood's history. Fame clouds the star's judgment, however, and he soon is paying the largest divorce settlements in Tinsletown's history too.

The first failed marriage is to gold-digging Mildred Harris (Hayley Podschun); the second to Joan Barry (Emilee Dupre). It isn't until he marries debutante Oona O'Neill (Erin Mackey) that he finds matrimonial bliss, but the relationship results in Oona's being disinherited by famous playwright father, Eugene, who objects to her much-older choice.

Charlie's star really begins to fade when gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a delightful Jenn Colella who brings some much-needed life to the show) has a grudge and starts trying to blacklist Charlie by playing up his association with the Communist party (the accusations are fueled by Chaplin's last picture, The Great Dictator, a talkie, featuring Adolph Hitler as the star). He and Oona flee to Europe until many years later, when  he finally is recognized at the Oscars. Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz dress all the characters in yummy period costumes which range from 1894 to 1972.

Ok, now for what's not so good.

First, bookwriters Christopher Curtis ( and Thomas Meehan try to include almost every detail from Chaplin's life in the musical. There simply is too much happening. One scene, for instance, has Hedda talking to her assistant about wanting to get Charlie on her show, asking the assistant to call him, then making the call. The call would have sufficed. Or even just the last part of it with an angry hang-up from Hedda as she launches into her revenge mode. The dialogue leading to and during the call is tedious. Whole sets are created for a few lines of unnecessary dialogue.

In the same way, the first musical numbers and accompanying scenes could have been eliminated with the musical starting on a riveting note as Charlie is abandoned by his mother. We really don't need his life, though nicely portrayed by Zachary Unger as young Charlie, depicted in such detail prior to the start of the real action.

On the other hand, to get in so many details, other parts of the script seem to move as break-neck speed. Charlie meets Mildred, woos her, signs numerous contracts with film studios, starts his own studio, finds out he's going to be a father and marries Mildred in about the same amount of time it took you to read this sentence.

The constant revisiting of moments between young Charlie and his mother also gets old after a while, though it's hard to complain about having a chance to enjoy the lovely Noll on stage. Curtis' music and lyrics don't give her a lot to work with, however, as they are mostly uninspired. The last ensemble number "This Man" was my favorite, but two and a half hours is a long time to wait before you start loving the music. Bryan Perri provides the musical direction and vocal  arrangements; Larry Hochman does the orchestrations.

Director Warren Carlyle (who also choreographs) just can't pull the pieces together. The production further suffers from his and set designer Beowulf Boritt's decision to present everything in black, white and gray. I get it. This is supposed to be a movie about Chaplin, and I suppose his life wasn't full of color and all of his movies were in black and white. An interesting idea on paper doesn't always work on a live Broadway stage, however. The unquestionably talented Boritt creates some lovely Deco backdrops, but the lighting on them (Ken Billington, design) intentionally keeps them -- and all of the beautiful costumes -- colorless. Even the makeup design by Angelina Avallone seems overly chalky to make sure nothing but shades of black and white are visible until the Academy Award scene near the end, which is staged all in red. The result -- and the most disappointing part of this musical -- is a very drab-looking production to match a ho-hum show.

Chaplin runs at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St., NYC. Tickets and information: 212- 239-6200 or 800-432-7250;

Christians might also like to know:
-- Language
-- Lord's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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