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Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin

This new bio-musical about the legendary actor and director doesn't do justice to its subject.

Rob McClure in Limelight
(© Craig Schwartz)
The life and art of Charlie Chaplin was filled to overflowing with genius, scandal, exciting characters, and world-shaking incidents, which makes it a seemingly impossible task to fit them all into two hours or so of stage time. Sadly, the latest team to attempt this feat, Tony Award-winning book writer Thomas Meehan and composer and co-author Christopher Curtis, haven't succeeded into overcoming the obstacles with Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, now getting its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.

While the show covers a lot of ground, you know there's trouble ahead when Act One ends with Chaplin's divorce from just the first of his four wives. One quickly senses the authors might have been better off simply focusing on one part of his life.

The show starts with Chaplin's (Rob McClure) humble beginnings on the London Music Hall stage, and continues through his stint in workhouses, British vaudeville and his eventual success with Mack Sennett (the excellent Ron Orbach) in early Hollywood silent comedies, before moving onto his feud with the red-baiting gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella, who practically steals the show), his growing political outspokenness on the part of Russia during World War II, his paternity trial scandal, his exile from America, and eventually his triumphant return in 1972 to receive an honorary Academy Award.

While the show does focus on some of Chaplin's personal relationships, most notably with his music-hall-star mother, Hannah (Ashley Brown in a strong turn), his older brother, Sydney (the solid Matthew Scott), and his wife Oona O'Neill (Brown again, but much less effective), some parts of his life are given the bum's rush: wife number two, Lita Grey, is dismissed in a few song lyrics regarding her large divorce settlement; and wife number 3, screen star Paulette Goddard, isn't mentioned at all.

To its credit, the show is sleekly directed by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger, who have given the production the look and feel of a film. Alexander Dodge's scenic design is a great aid in this effect with sliding panels opening and closing to provide focus on scenes. Paul Gallo's lighting design is stunning, whether bathing the early music hall scenes in the soft glow of mellow footlights, the early Hollywood scenes in a bright California sunshine, and the red-baiting, scandal plagued 1940s with ominous shadows. Sadly, little in the book or in Curtis' serviceable if unmemorable score matches the production values.

The cast of 22, most of whom double or triple roles, is very competent. But the show's burden falls squarely on McClure. The actor captures Chaplin's easy comic grace, and he really shines during the slapstick vaudeville routines. Indeed, the highlight of the show is his transformation from nervous Hollywood newcomer into his iconic creation, The Little Tramp. But ultimately, McClure just doesn't radiate enough star power to carry a mediocre musical about one of the greatest stars ever seen on film or stage.