When the curtain rises on Chaplin, the new musical which opened last night at the Barrymore Theater, we see Charlie Chaplin balancing precariously on a high wire. From the angle where I was seated, I couldn’t see the wire that must surely have been securing actor Rob McClure in case of disaster, and thus the effect was pretty impressive. Fortunately for Charlie—and Rob, too, we suppose—he never did fall. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that would be the most high-stakes moment of the evening, come and gone in the opening scene.
There’s no two ways about it, Chaplin is not good. Overburdened with a book which has bit off more story than it can chew, a slow first act which repeats the same images and scenes over and over—occasionally verbatim—a second act that attempts to cover too much ground, a complete lack of dramatic tension and not nearly enough good songs, this show is a clunker, plain and simple.
It’s unfortunate, too, because the production itself is quite visually appealing and in the title role, Rob McClure is giving a remarkably strong performance. The black and white costumes, by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz—oh my god some of those jazz age dresses!!—and the white-out makeup designed by Angelina Avallone translate the aesthetic of black and white film to the stage beautifully. Meanwhile, McClure is translating Charlie Chaplin more than beautifully, giving a fully realized performance that is neither caricature nor impersonation. Instead, McClure completely inhabits the silent film star, top to toe, and his 11 o’clock number is one of the few moments in the entire show that possesses any true emotional impact.
But McClure is saddled with a book, by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan, that can’t get itself together. The first act sets up a structure—we’re watching the creation of a film about Chaplin’s life—that the second act abandons altogether. As an audience member I could actually feel the show grasping for of powerful images, both written and staged, that would echo the indelible mark Chaplin’s career has left in our collective cultural consciousness. That grasping lead to so much repetition in places that I’m relatively certain the first act is actually just the same twenty minutes played in a loop 3.5 times. Meanwhile, the second act is left to cover so much ground—nearly 50 years—in so little time that none of the drama of the political hunt for Chaplin even registers as dangerous and none of the failings in his personal life seem truly destructive. Everything here felt so low stakes that I actually found myself bored, despite all the action taking place on stage.
Then there’s Curtis’ score, on which I can’t say much mostly because… I can’t remember much, either. The only snippet of music from the night I’m able to recall is “come see Charlie Chaplin,” a theme repeated to the point of hilarity. Or irony, I suppose, since that’s actually the exact opposite of what I would suggest you do.