PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Chaplin Sings Songs From His Slapstick Tragedy

By Harry Haun
11 Sep 2012

Erin Mackey
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The fourth and longest-lasting Mrs. Chaplin — Eugene O'Neill's daughter, Oona (a godsend word for crossword puzzlers) — is played by Erin Mackey. Her character arrives well into the second act, but, like the other principals, she does extra duty milling around as human scenery under Chaplin's tightrope. "Then, I sit backstage for two hours," she said. "It's actually lovely because we all get to start off together. I have one song that I sing to Charlie — 'What Only Love Can See' — and then there's a reprise, and I lead off the finale number, 'This Man.' At least with my songs, I just feel that they flow very easily from the dialogue into the music. It feels very natural, and there's definitely that sense of 'When you can't speak anymore, sing.'"

A highly hiss-worthy Hedda Hopper, attacking Chaplin as a lefty and a lothario in her gossip column, is advanced with relish and enthusiasm by Jenn Colella, who displays a voice for the barricades with "All Falls Down" and "Just Another Day in Hollywood." "She kinda becomes a villain just standing up for what she believes in. She had a home in Beverly Hills that she called The House That Fear Built."

It's okay with Colella that their politics are poles apart. "I do believe in a lot of what she believed in, but I value that everyone has different opinions. It's interesting to have to sympathize and empathize and play someone so totally different from me."

Mr. Karno, a music-hall impresario who first spotted the potential in Chaplin, is played by William Ryall, who's also a star-spotter: "Rob McClure's the new Jim Dale," he declared firmly, Dale being the last to attempt a tightrope walk on Broadway (in 1980's Barnum) and earning a Tony for the effort. "He's the most generous and fearless actor I've ever met. He will try anything and everything, at least once — well, I'm talking about in show business, mind you."

Michael Mendez, whose sister Lindsay Mendez is having a good theatrical year (Godspell, Dogfight), landed a small but appetizing plum in the show — Fatty Arbuckle, a soft-sweet presence with hard times to come. "This is my first Broadway show, and Warren is so amazing," he said. "It's such a beautiful show, and he was so smart with it. He just threw me in there. He showed me a few Fatty Arbuckle videos. It was, like, 'This is what his shtick was.' I took what I could from that and did my own Fatty. I couldn't ask for a better first Broadway experience."

Chaplin's brother, Sydney, who played agent for him and nursemaided their mad mother, is staunchly delivered by Wayne Alan Wilcox. "I love coming to work every day with this show," he remarked. "For me, the big throughline is the family that Charlie never had except for his brother. Sydney was there to the very end — through all of his scandals, through all of his trials and tribulations."

Christiane Noll
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Ragtime's Tony-nominated Mother, Christiane Noll, is quite a different mother in this show. "I read quite a bit about Hannah Chaplin," she said. "Some people surmise what she had was due to complications from syphilis, but I don't think that it was ever documented that she had that. Throughout the first act, I continue to make little appearances. Every time Charlie's having a little issue, Mommy shows up, and every time I'm in a different state of mind, whether I'm manic or completely distraught or a puddle of a person. I'm never in the same place two times in a row. It's always flip/flop, flip/flop, so I'm actually happy it's spaced out the way that it is because it gives me a little bit of a time to breathe. Act One you see how he chooses to remember me, and Act Two you get to see how I turned out."

Hair designer Paul Huntley has bewigged her well for both acts. "The first Hannah is very reminiscent of pictures of her. The second shows how she went gray, and that's taken directly from photographs of Hannah, and it's so striking."

Noll's hope for Chaplin is that it finds the same audience Chaplin found when he communicated to the world without the complications of words. "I want everyone to love it, but I hope we get the non-English-speaking tourists. Chaplin is super-iconic internationally. The way that we're telling this is as a visual story about a visual artist. It's going to translate really well to people who don't necessarily speak English. And I want to see a lot of little boys because, if you show young boys the old Chaplin movies, they flip out. They're seeing something they've never seen before. I hope it catches on so little boys want to go see more than just Spider-Man."

Kiera Chaplin, a dazzling blonde holding up the family bloodline and cheekbones, led the list of first-nighters. Charlie's actress-granddaughter, by way of Eugene, approved heartily, and Phyllis Newman, going into the Barrymore, suspected she might be the only one in the theatre who had actually met Chaplin and his wife. "Adolph and I used to summer with them in Europe," she said.

Also in attendance: Annie and her Daddy Warbucks (Lilla Crawford and Anthony Warlow) from Meehan's next show; Robert Creighton from the next show Carlyle will choreograph (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and Adriane Lenox from the next show that he will direct and choreograph (Cotton Club Parade at City Center and, maybe, after that, on Broadway); Brian d'Arcy James, newly booked to fill Rock Hudson's boots in Michael John LaChiusa's Giant musical at The Public; Ron Raines, an authentic Texan (from Nacogdoches, no less); Broadway mimes with notepads intact (Bill Irwin and David Shiner); Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen; Peter and the Starcatcher's Celia Keenan-Bolger and husband John Ellison Conlee; two-thirds of the Jonas bros (Joe Jonas and Nick Jonas); a smashing-looking Megan Hilty; eternal redhead Arlene Dahl and husband Marc Rosen, both booked for buddy Robert Osborne's next TCM cruise; Brandon Victor Dixon, Broadway's future Berry Gordy; director Kenny Leon, fresh from filming "Steel Magnolias" for TV with Queen Latifah and Phylicia Rashad; pianist-singer Peter Cincotti, whose "Metropolis" album just hit Europe; Tony Danza; Follies-free Danny Burstein, who's currently coaching Golden Boy (the War Horse-less Seth Numrich) to box, and his wife, Rebecca Luker; Montego Glover, going Hollywood after Memphis; Tony winners John Lloyd Young, back in Jersey Boys and Alice Ripley; TV's "Kitchen Cousins" (Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri) and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.