Chaplin, a U.S. Musical With Roots in the '80s, Blossoms in London June 26-July 4
By Adam Hetrick
Chaplin, a once-Broadway-bound musical that became an award-winning American regional-theatre title, gets its London debut on June 26 in a staging by the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, featuring the next generation of musical theatre stars. Martin Connor (West End's Iolanthe, Wonderful Town) directs and Bill Deamer (West End's Top Hat and the revised Love Never Dies) choreographs the biographical musical about the early days — including the London life — of film star Charlie Chaplin.
Guildhall student Simon Blackhall plays Chaplin.
Money problems scuttled the show on its way to Broadway in 1982. At that time, Tony Award winner Joe Layton (Barnum, George M!) was to direct and choreograph the show, which has a book by Ernest Kinoy (Bajour, Golden Rainbow, Emmy winner for "Roots"), lyrics by Lee Goldsmith (Shine!) and music by composer Roger Anderson (Shine!). Tony Walton was the original designer, Wally Harper was the original musical director.
The student-cast Guildhall production, running June 26-July 4 the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican Centre in London, represents the creators' original vision for the show. The authors revised the show for a 1993 world premiere in Miami, where Chaplin won the South Florida Carbonell Award as Best New Work, but they now return to their original script and score. (The show is not the same work as Chaplin the Musical, launching on Broadway Aug. 21.)
Anderson told Playbill.com that his and his collaborators' Chaplin was not intended to be a birth-to-death biographical drama about the artist whose silent films thrilled the world, but a kind of "origin story" that drew heavily on Chaplin's English Music Hall roots. Characters from the theatrical tradition of commedia dell'arte also haunt the world.
Director Connor is Guildhall's head of acting studies. The cast includes Jherad Alleyne (Harlequin/Alfie), Simon Blackhall (Charlie/Charles Senior), Tim Bowie (Sydney), Nathalie Buscombe (Gladys/Immigrant Girl), Sion Alun Davies (Retired Naval Person/Mack Sennett), Katharine Drury (Betty), Jenny Fennessy (Lottie), Olivier Gagnon (Pierrot), Gala Gordon (Columbine), Danielle Harrison (Hannah), Nick Kendrick (Stage Manager/Fred Karno/Immigration Officer), Susannah Laing (Francey), Katherine Rose Morley (Mabel), James-Tobias Norrington (Child Charlie), Kevin Phelan (Young Sydney/Jacobson), Callum Quinnen (Child Charlie), Helen Ramsorrun (Louise), Rose Reynolds (Lily) and Beatrice Walker (Hetty), with Kamilla Dunstan, Dominick Felix, Joana Gil, Ieuan Davies, Alison Langer, Benjamin Watkins and Dagmar Zeromska.
The creative team also includes Steve Edis (orchestrator and musical director), Mark Bailey (designer), Mark Jonathan (lighting designer), Ben Harrison (sound designer), Dan Shorten (video designer), Oliver Jackson (assistant music director) and Danielle Harrison (dance captain).
The performance dates are June 26-30 and July 4 at 7:30 PM and June 29 and July 4 at 2 PM. For ticket information visit barbican.org.uk.
The Layton-directed Chaplin was first announced for Broadway in 1981, a time when Anthony Newley was prepping a separate (and more traditional) Chaplin musical for Broadway. Financing for the Layton production fell through the weekend before first rehearsal, composer Anderson said. Sets were being built, costumes were in production, actors had left other running Broadway shows to take jobs in Chaplin.
"There was nothing obvious or easy in Ernest Kinoy's remarkable script that explored Chaplin's evolution from birth in 1889 to the official appearance of The Tramp in 1915," Anderson told Playbill.com. "The challenge we were handed of creating a worthy theatre piece about the great comedian that explored his young life in the theatre was a task none of us took lightly. But the original version under the leadership of the late great Joe Layton and musical director Wally Harper was demanding in stagecraft and dance.
"Later, we [writers] worked with another Broadway director who asked to simplify and Americanize the show. That version was produced in Miami in the 1990s, but almost all of the elements of the commedia and dance were removed. In addition, the visual transformation to The Tramp was relocated, which was a notable mistake. The GSMD London premiere will be the first full production of the 1982 Broadway-bound show, with the original script and score fully restored, with new orchestrations by Steven Edis."
It's not rare for GSMD to stage new or lesser-known works in its disciplines of music, drama and opera, a spokesperson for the school said. The school staged the European premiere of Ned Rorem's opera Our Town in June, for example.
"We are in good hands with Guildhall," Anderson said. "It's a fanciful and magical musical, and a young troupe of performers suits it well. I'm certain Joe Layton would be pleased — maybe Charlie as well."
This is not the first time this Chaplin has been seen on English soil. In November 2007 musical theatre students in Guildford, England, performed it as part of The Guildford School of Acting's season. Connor also directed that production, with Deamer as choreographer.
Here's how Guildhall School of Music & Drama characterizes Chaplin: "A new musical tracing Charlie Chaplin's struggle to break free of his humble beginnings and follow a quest for identity and fulfillment."
Founded in 1880, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama is one of the U.K.'s major music conservatories and drama schools. The School moved to its current home in the Barbican Centre in 1977.
For more information, visit the Guildhall site.
Unrelated to this resurrected Chaplin is Chaplin the Musical, starting Broadway previews Aug. 21. The musical features music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis and book by three-time Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Christopher Curtis. Warren Carlyle (Finian’s Rainbow; Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway) will direct and choreograph the production. Rob McClure plays Chaplin. It previously played La Jolla Playhouse in 2010.
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