Charlie Chaplin, on-screen, was funny.
Chaplin: The Musical (Barrymore Theatre) mostly isn’t. Charlie’s films inspired crowds to unremitting love, worldwide, for three-plus decades. Chaplin: The Musical conveys their love mainly by telling us how much cash film companies would bid for his services. In later years, the unremitting love waned—most rapidly in America—while Chaplin evolved as an artist, immersed himself increasingly in politics, and saw his personal life turned into scandal-sheet fodder.
Chaplin: The Musical, shuffling facts about cursorily, dwells on that last topic, though half-heartedly: Lita Grey, who bore Chaplin’s two oldest children, barely rates a passing mention. In this musical, the great comedian’s political problems stem largely from his refusal to appear on gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s radio show. As for Chaplin’s art, you’d never learn from Chaplin that his contract negotiations hinged mainly on his ever-increasing demand for more production time per film, or that he finally threw off all subordination to the studio system and joined in the founding of Hollywood’s first indie production company, United Artists. Nor will this musical tell you that at the height of his comic stardom, Chaplin jolted Hollywood by directing a serious romantic drama (A Woman of Paris) with no major role for him.
As for his extraordinary late films, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), you won’t find their names in this script—though the former at least might merit some comment. Or isn’t it relevant when a man hounded by paternity suits and accusations of Communist leanings makes a film about a serial killer of women who equates his activities with war-profiteering capitalism?
Quite simply, Chaplin: The Musical exists only to display an empty Hollywood icon, traversing a wearily familiar rise-and-fall route, with blandly standard power ballads for road markers. Songwriter Christopher Curtis and book co-writer Thomas Meehan have no particular idea about Chaplin except that his mother apparently taught him method acting in infancy. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, conveying little feeling for Chaplin’s work, covers every event in his black-and-white staging with multimedia gimmickry (often effective), or with nondescript swashes of dance. Rob McClure’s Chaplin, stuck with inert material, works heroically, but his thunder gets stolen, big-time, by Jenn Colella, as Hedda Hopper, making a feast of the show’s only active role. Apart from her, and one wrenching moment by young Zachary Unger as Jackie Coogan, Chaplin offers the antithesis of Chaplin: nothing worth seeing.