Chaplin, the so-called musical "memory" that was once set for Broadway in the early 1980s but fell apart as rehearsals were dawning, will get its second regional Florida production, opening Aug. 14 in Sarasota, with Larry Raben, of the original Forever Plaid, as Charlie Chaplin.
The musical by librettist Ernest Kinoy (who wrote the "Roots" teleplay and the book to Broadway's Bajour), lyricist Lee Goldsmith and composer Roger Anderson was about to begin its first Broadway rehearsal in 1981 when producer Don Gregory, who initiated the show, announced that financing had fallen through, composer Anderson told Playbill On-Line. Director Joe Layton, designer Tony Walton, musical director Wally Harper and star John Rubinstein were all attached to the original aborted production, about the early life of the silent screen star.
The abandoned script and score would eventually be produced in 1993, in Miami, where the show won a prestigious Carbonell Award from sunshine-state theatre critics. Producer Paul Bartz now has the commercial option, and he brought the piece to Sarasota, FL, producer-director Robert Turoff, who is staging Chaplin at his Equity dinner theatre, The Golden Apple, Aug. 14-Sept. 2.
Turoff said he hasn't staged a new or lesser-known work at the Golden Apple in 10-12 years because increased competition in the area prompts him to program sure-fire sellers. "It's hard to take a chance," he admitted. The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, a commercial venture, is currently in its 30th year and celebrated its 250th show with the July staging of 1776. Back in 1971, it was one of the only theatrical games in town.
Bartz views the Golden Apple staging as a first step toward further commercial development of the property. The Sarasota cast includes Susie Roelofsz as Charlie's mum, Hannah, and his true love, Hetty; Kyle Turoff as Mabel Normand and ensemble roles; Ian Sullivan as music hall producer Karno; Kelley McCollum as brother Syd Chaplin; Richard Bigelow as Stage Manager and ensemble roles; Drew Foster as Child Syd; Mike Foster as Child Charlie; Roy Johns as Mack Sennett and ensemble; Catherine Randazzo as Louise and ensemble; with Nick Darrow, Michael Harrington, Geoffrey Hefflefinger, Al Jackson, James Lewis, Paul J. Wargo, Kelly Burnette, Jillian Johnson, Dierdre Mercier, Liza Pahel, Joleen Wilkinson, Jessica Fritz, Edwin Medina and Liam Mercier. "What I like about this show is that it's not the Chaplin that we are familiar with — the later Chaplin, after the 'Little Tramp' and Hollywood," Turoff, a longtime Chaplin fan, told Playbill On-Line. "It's Chaplin as a child, it's a memory of his childhood."
Turoff said the script's conceit has doubling and tripling of cast members to underline various tensions and relationships. For example, Raben will play both Chaplin and his father and Roelofsz plays the two women who disappeared from his life — his mother, who left the boys on the steps of a workhouse and his lost love, Hetty, who died young.
The show opens with Chaplin visiting his London boyhood street, Kennington Road, and fighting the memories that swirl around him. "He creates a memory from what he would like to remember, and sometimes reality sneaks in without him knowing it," Turoff said, adding that the score is "captivating" and laced with a "haunting" recurring number called "Pretend." The song becomes a kind of aching theme — and secret to success, ultimately — in Chaplin's professional and personal life.
Chaplin's story is presented as a series of English music-hall turns, reflecting the world he was brought up in. The creators have called the show "a memory as entertainment." John Visser will musical direct the Golden Apple production.
Raben appeared in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!, in New York and Los Angeles and was seen in the world premiere of Joe DiPietro's musical, Men. He was a member of the original Off-Broadway production of Forever Plaid, and created the role of Sparky in London's West End and in Los Angeles.
"The challenge of the score was to follow the varied musical and theatrical styles of Chaplin's early life, from the musical halls of London to the dinner parties of early Hollywood," composer Anderson told Playbill On-Line. "The music joins forces with the theatrical language of the script and lyrics to create an impression of the specific type of entertainment that Chaplin feels best serves his take on a particular memory. Yet one or two theatrical recreations defy his directorial control: The minor chords of an organ grinder down a dark London street, an ever-present, haunting tune once sung by his mother on the way to the workhouse, a funeral procession too realistic for him, etc. Hopefully, the songs will serve as biography and entertainment for the audience while providing some insight into a remarkable man."
Goldsmith and Anderson's Horatio Alger-based musical, Shine (written with librettist Richard Seff), got a reading in April, presented by the National Music Theatre Network in Manhattan. Lyricist Goldsmith penned book and lyrics to Sheba, a musical based on William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. The tuner starring Kate Ballard folded out of town in 1973. It will be seen in its first full revival Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre in Westport, CT, with Donna McKechnie.
Golden Apple Dinner Theatre is at 25 N. Pineapple Avenue in Sarasota. For information, call (941) 366-5454 or (800) 652 0920.
Original producer Don Gregory and Anthony Newley had planned to collaborate on a Chaplin musical, but Newley splintered off and created his own show, which folded famously after playing a rocky Los Angeles run in 1983.
— By Kenneth Jones