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

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11 Sep 2012

Rob McClure; guests Ron Raines, Montego Glover, Lilla Crawford and Anthony Warlow
Rob McClure; guests Ron Raines, Montego Glover, Lilla Crawford and Anthony Warlow
Photo by Monica Simoes

Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Chaplin the Musical.


"Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, even though it's breaking" — lyrics that John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added in 1954 to an instrumental theme which Charles Chaplin had written 18 years earlier for his movie, "Modern Times" — did not come up Sept. 10 at the Barrymore in the audience-accessible, old-fashioned score that Christopher Curtis concocted for his bio musical, Chaplin.

It is possible that orchestrator Larry Hochman slipped it in anyway, via dog-whistle, because its sentimental sentiment pervades the show, and it was certainly the rule that Chaplin lived by to become the comic genius of his generation.

The tragic welcome to the world he endured as the son of English music-hall performers — a father who staggered drunkenly to an early grave and a mother who drifted into darkening madness — haunted, informed and inspired his work.

Flickers were the light at the end of his childhood tunnel, and black and white became his lifelong color scheme. Accordingly, set designer Beowulf Boritt, costumers Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz and lighting designer Ken Billington — have outfitted the show in at least 50 shades of gray, as befits the world of a silent-screen icon, and, much like Chaplin resisting The Talkies, they stubbornly refuse to go into Technicolor till the closing emotional moments.

Given the mammoth size of the talent being approximated, any raw kid from the chorus who goes out there in the title role has got to come back a Star! Clearly, Rob McClure got the memo and responded appropriately with a full-out tour de force. An Avenue Q cast-replacement, he did a previous star-turn in the Encores! concert of Where's Charley? and answered that with Chaplin.

Thomas Meehan and Curtis, who packed 78 years into a presentable book, and director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, who kept it spinning on 78 rpm, have devised a grueling obstacle course to stardom in which McClure is perpetually flexing and testing his talent, starting and ending Act One on a high wire.

When he arrived at the Gotham Hall after-party and found Chaplin movies dancing on the walls of the rotunda, McClure was still understandably wired from his first night as a Broadway star. If anything, he seemed energized by that creative marathon.

"The show is a bit of a crazy countdown for me in terms of special skills," he allowed. "It starts at 200 at the top of the show, and I go, 'Okay, don't fall off this tightrope.' And then, 199: 'Don't fall off this spinning table.' And 198: 'Don't spill this glass of wine while doing a back-flip.' And 197: '‘Play the right notes on the violin.'"

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Jenn Colella
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

And that's just the first five minutes. Other items on his To-Do list: Tap-dance on roller skates. Waltz blindfolded on roller skates. Sing, dance and act with a British accent. Mimic Hitler in full Teutonic rant. Deliver a blistering 11 o'clock number. Portray a raging ego and libido, a cranky king-of-the-mountain that people want to knock off. Be authentically funny and touching whenever those cards are played. And, periodically, evaporate seamlessly into a screen-image of the real Chaplin.

McClure checked off all the above and has Chaplin's height (5-feet 8-inches) covered as well. It must be inserted here that he has more than a little help from Zachary Unger, a terrific child-actor who pulls all the emotional stops out in his age division, playing the boy Chaplin or playing Jackie Coogan filming "The Kid."

The idea of finding anyone else to fill the awesome job-description for the grown-up Chaplin boggles the mind, but there really are two covers on deck ready, able and thoroughly schooled in taking over for McClure, should that need ever arise.

"My understudy is named Justin Bowen — he's in our ensemble — and Eric Santagata, our male swing. We've been such a great trio. We went to tightrope lessons together, violin lessons together, roller-skating lessons together."

The demands of the role are in keeping with the character, he felt. "It's all Chaplin sensibility. If it's funny and you're moved by it, that's Chaplin. You watch his films and find yourself laughing, then somewhere toward the end, you find yourself welling up, and you're not sure when he got to you. He was the first to do that. He said, 'I think audiences are smarter than just the pie-in-the-face. I think we can go ahead and tell a much larger, deeper story on film and people will commit to that.' We owe him the way we contemporarily tell stories. We owe it to him. We really do."


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