Primarily, it’s thanks to his breakout performance as Charlie Chaplin that this by-the-book musical biography, with a book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan, and score by Curtis, about the silent film legend proves to be such a pleasant theatrical diversion.
During the course of the overstuffed show, which spans nearly 80 years as it brings Chaplin’s life from boyhood in late 19th-century London to old age in the early 1970s in just 2½ hours, McClure proves to be not just a triple threat, but a quadruple one, adding physical comedian to the usual actor-singer-dancer hyphenate.
Theatergoers first encounter him balancing on a high wire center stage, and before long, they discover that not only can he perform this stunt, he can also execute a backwards somersault without spilling a drop of wine from a goblet, and – this is the best part – he has the ability to expertly mimic all of the signature moves of the musical’s hero.
McClure’s deft physical performance could, in many respects, be just enough to warrant notice, but in addition, he uses his powerhouse baritone to great effect throughout the show, delivering Curtis’ period-sounding tunes with gusto. In addition, McClure illuminates both Chaplin’s sweet innocence (which audiences could see in his trademark “Tramp” character), and his darker, more conflicted, side, which comes to light as Chaplin rises to the heights of early Hollywood’s elite.
That Chaplin also boasts a second performance of searing intensity similarly helps bolster the allure of the production. Jenn Colella plays gossip columnist and radio personality Hedda Hopper, and captures not only the leering vocal lilt that was such an integral part of Hopper’s style, but also the woman’s fierceness, particularly when belting out Hopper’s bluesy battle cry “All Falls Down.”
Sadly, until Chaplin and Hopper square off – which includes one of the most inventive moments in the musical in which his much-publicized marriages and divorces are depicted as a series of boxing matches with color commentary by Hopper – the musical unfolds with workman-like efficiency.
Curtis and Meehan’s book expeditiously details his life as a child alongside his mother, Hannah (the always luminous Christiane Noll), a flamboyant music hall performer who lapses into a generalized insanity and is institutionalized, and drunken father (Michael McCormick). Before long, Chaplin’s become a music hall star in his own right, been hired by Mack Sennett (also played by McCormick) to appear in the Keystone Kops movies, and developed the character that the world knows to this day.
Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle keeps the action moving briskly and often uses extended dance sequences to indicate action, much in the same way the book uses narration to relate key events. Often, this combination can lead to a sense (particularly during the first act and latter part of the second act) of Chaplin being a biographical pageant that unfolds in a monochromatic environment seemingly inspired by the sparseness of early 20th-century back lots (scenic design by Beowulf Borritt).
The show’s black and white color palette extends from Borritt’s scenic design to the costume designs from Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz that handsomely evoke the styles of many decades; Ken Billington’s angular lighting design, and, quite naturally Jon Driscoll’s video design, which gracefully brings Chaplin’s celluloid world to life on stage.
The show also features appealing performances from Hayley Podschun as Mildred Harris, Chaplin’s gold-digging first wife; Wayne Alan Wilcox as his supportive, sidekick brother, Sydney; and Erin Mackey, who brings gregarious charm to her turn as Oona O’Neill, Chaplin’s final wife and the woman who gives him – and this merely serviceable musical – a happy ending.