Thursday, September 27, 2012

New in New York: This "Chaplin" is Worth Trying on For Size

The New in New York musical celebrating the life of Charlie Chaplin

By Mitch Broder

Charlie Chaplin would surely approve of a musical called "Chaplin the Musical," if only on the grounds that it's a musical called "Chaplin the Musical."

Not just approve of it, but also believe it to be the world's greatest musical, since he would believe it to be a musical about the world's greatest movie star.

Chaplin was the Little Tramp who got the Big Head. But it was forgivable, because he actually was the world's greatest movie star. And happily, by the end of his life he had reduced his head enough to publicly act as if he wasn't, even if he still thought he was.

Chaplin The Musical is playing at the Old New York theater the Barrymore

It took a long time to get a musical based on Chaplin's life to Broadway. It took a long time to get a musical based on Shaw's "Pygmalion" to Broadway. That musical was "My Fair Lady," and it became the longest-running musical. "Chaplin" isn't "My Fair Lady," and it probably won't.

Still, it's not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. It's a pleasant show with pleasant music about a recurrently unpleasant life. It follows Charlie from his bleak boyhood, which, early on, he sums up with the line: "Dad died drunk, Mom went crazy, so maybe I should go into the movies!"

"Pygmalion" was so tough to convert that even Rodgers and Hammerstein gave up. Others have made Chaplin musicals, but none made it to New York. This one must be the best yet, considering that it's here, but it enjoyed no help from Rodgers and Hammerstein, let alone from Lerner and Loewe.

The cast of Chaplin The Musical sings and dance in this New in New York show.

It does enjoy a lovely cast, led by Rob McClure, who has Chaplin nailed both as the Little Tramp and as Chaplin. It also enjoys a lovely design, suffused with black and white, which is, of course, the way most of us have come to picture Chaplin.

And it does enjoy nice songs. But you won't go out humming them. They work well in the show. Then they stay there.

The lack of memorable music is frustrating, since this is, after all, a musical. The lack of Tramp scenes is also frustrating, since this is, after all, "Chaplin." McClure is enchanting when he does the enormously popular character, but he doesn't do much of him. This is not "Little Tramp the Musical."

In the end, that could be the biggest drawback. Chaplin's wasn't a musical-comedy life. Parental alcoholism and mental illness were just the overture. His later years were afflicted with — besides the Big Head — bad marriages, governmental harassment, and exile. Everybody sing!

The show's best number is itself sinister. It's "All Falls Down," sung by Jenn Colella as the sinister gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Hedda sings gaily of destroying Chaplin because he didn't grant her an interview.

This is insulting to a former newspaperman like me.

Maybe that's the best reason to see the show.

Patrons picture themselves as Chaplin before heading into the Old New York theater, The Barrymore

Hats off to "Chaplin," at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, in New York City.


  1. OK, I am just going to have to say that the male dancer in the front with the top hat is scaring me. If I keep looking, I will have nightmares. And the guy to the left of him in the photo isn't doing anything to calm my nerves.

    But your line: Parental alcoholism and mental illness... Everybody sing!" is very funny!

  2. I agree w/Jen. The "Everybody sing!" line is great. But I'm also fond of "It's a pleasant show with pleasant music about a recurrently unpleasant life." and "The lack of memorable music is frustrating, since this is, after all, a musical."