I will stipulate that compressing the life of one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th Century is no easy task. Satisfying all audiences is impossible. The creators of a big, meant-for-Broadway musical must omit fun, interesting and clever bits of story and information, and too, they must simplify and consolidate large swaths of time. Important events must be prioritized, and ultimately potentially upsetting choices will be made. To do all this, they must utilize creative license as they cut and even fictionalize small bits of the examined life. And yet with all those understood caveats, I can’t imagine a worse, more mundane effort than the musical take on the life of Charlie Chaplin, closing on Broadway this Sunday.
I’ve missed several shows this season that I’ve been dying to see. Most notably, I’m saddened that I won’t have the chance to see what I understand is an astounding production of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy that will close days before I return from an out-of-this-hemisphere vacation. But when I heard Chaplin: The Musical had announced its closing last month, I made sure I didn’t miss it.
I love movies. I love theater. I love silent movies, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Chaplin’s films for years. I don’t consider myself an expert on Chaplin’s life and career, but I know enough to be baffled by many of the choices -- both inclusions and omissions -- made by librettist and composer Christopher Curtis who co-wrote the book with three-time Tony winner Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Hairspray and Annie). Meehan’s impressive credits can’t obscure the colossal storytelling mess that has inhabited the stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theater the past few months.
Broadway has long been home to weak shows featuring amazing talent, and Chaplin’s primary (and sole) strength fits neatly into this scenario. Rob McClure’s works hard to save this show with his central, titular performance. He captures the essence and spirit of Charlie Chaplin as thoroughly as Robert Downey Jr. did in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic, but McClure has the added quality of looking remarkably like the man who was Hollywood’s biggest star and arguably one of the three or four most important filmmakers of the silent era.
Try as he might, and as impressive as his combined interpretation and mimicry often are, the rest of Chaplin provides a formulaic, inconsistent and often false storyline that shoots for the salacious at every turn. The show’s book lacks any subtext placing every bone in the plot’s skeleton front and center, with anvil-dropping obviousness, just in case the audience misses the point.