In an era when so many composers and librettists lean toward four-person musicals with navel-gazing subject matter, one can't help but applaud Christopher Curtis' ambition in writing Behind the Limelight, a 17-actor piece that not so wisely spans 60-plus years of the great actor-director Charlie Chaplin's life. But despite a handful of nice touches by director Michael Unger and the efforts of a first-rate cast led by Luther Creek as Chaplin, the musical sinks under its own weight.
Sadly, the ways in which Curtis hurts his own cause are myriad, from telling the story in flashback with old Charlie (Robert Landon-Lloyd) sitting downstage for the entire show to playing extremely fast and loose with the well-known facts of Chaplin's life. Little of the show's time frame is historically accurate; Curtis even has Hedda Hopper (played quite convincingly by Andrea McArdle) working as a gossip columnist more than two decades before she took up the profession. And savvy audience members will certainly be confused by the fact that -- at least in this staging -- Chaplin and his last wife, Oona O'Neill (the lovely Garrett Long), appear to be the same age upon their marriage. In reality, they were 36 years apart, a generation gap that bothered much of America (not to mention O'Neill's legendary dad, Eugene).
It would also help matters greatly if Curtis ultimately exhibited some point of view about his subject. He devotes copious sections of the second act to Chaplin's support of the Russian front during World War II; but when, in this highly fictionalized version of his life, he is exiled by the U.S. government because of his possibly Communist sympathies, one has no idea if Curtis believes Chaplin is at all to blame for his fate. (This incident never happened. In reality, Chaplin was denied reentry into the U.S. in 1952 by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover after a trip to England.)
While musical books worse than this one have been salvaged by their shows' scores, Curtis only intermittently comes to his own rescue. "The Life You Wished For," a zippy number for Chaplin at the end of Act I, is that character's one really good song, and Curtis definitely deserves praise for transforming the Act I music hall ditty "What'Cha Gonna Do When It All Falls Down" into a showstopper for Hopper in the second act. The song most likely to be heard again is the spurned-lover ballad "Somebody's Going to Love Me More" (sung by Brooke Sunny Moriber as Chaplin's first love, Edna Purviance), although it's an odd choice to have it open the second act.
In addition to Creek, Long, Moriber, and McArdle, the show features excellent work from Sean Palmer as Chaplin's older half-brother, Sydney; the poignant Janet Metz as their troubled mother, Hannah; and In My Life's Michael J. Farina in a variety of tough-guy roles. But even their copious talent can't make Behind the Limelight shine as brightly as one would like.
This lesson has not been learned by the creators of White Noise, a musical about a pop group fronted by adorable twin sisters who sing songs praising Nazism and promoting the cause of white supremacy. The show is inspired by Prussian Blue, an actual group consisting of teenage twins Lamb and Lynx Gaede of Bakersfield, California, whose hateful songs have gained them much condemnation but also lots of fans. (The press materials for White Noise describe them as "a Mary-Kate and Ashley for the cross-burning crowd.")
Of course, White Noise is meant to deplore Prussian Blue -- but that doesn't make the show's songs any easier to take. You can feel the audience recoil right from the opening number, in which the fictional group White Noise unleashes a string of racial epithets. Even more shocking is the second song, an ode to Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray. Yet another ditty includes a positive reference to the Holocaust. The show is directed and conceived by Ryan J. Davis, and the book, music, and lyrics are credited in large type to Joe Drymala, but the program lists additional songs by eight other writers. A highlight of the score is the very funny "Do the Laundry" by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a mock children's song in which the members of White Noise cheerfully instruct kids that you have to "separate the whites from the coloreds." That kind of wit is lacking elsewhere, but it's interesting to note that Drymala's lyrics are less overtly offensive than those of the other contributors.
The creators are also guilty of overkill in the way they've drawn one of the sisters, Eva; she's so evil that it's beyond the powers of actress Libby Winters to make her credible, let alone sympathetic. Better written is Eva's more moderate sibling, Blanche, but Molly Laurel really doesn't have the chops for the character's meatier scenes. The good news is that Laurel and Winters harmonize beautifully together and both are physically perfect for their roles.
Danny Calvert as Kurt, a young man who is drafted into the group and falls in love with Blanche, also comes up a bit short in the acting department. But fine performances are given by Micah Shepard as White Noise's fourth member, a skinhead named Duke; Philip Taratula in three small roles; and the hilarious Rick Crom as the group's manager, Rich. (Crom also wrote one of the show's better songs, "Big Fence," about keeping immigrants out of our great country.)
The show has spot-on choreography by Todd L. Underwood and excellent musical direction, orchestrations, and arrangements by Ben Cohn. The production values are generally good, though the sound amplification is such that the four-man band drowns out the singers at times. (Given some of the lyrics, this is not necessarily a bad thing.)
At one point in the proceedings, Rich tells Eva and Blanche, "You don't want to give it all away at the top." If the talented, well-intentioned writers of White Noise had taken this advice to heart and had placed the more offensive songs towards the end of the show, White Noise wouldn't have so many walkouts at intermission -- and, for that matter, during the first act.