Charlie Chaplin is an icon. Like Mickey Mouse, Chaplin has a recognizable silhouette that has become a brand: the bowler hat, the tiny jacket, and the swinging cane. To this add the mugging and the mournful swagger and you have the embodiment of the early 20th century in flickering pictures. It was a time when movies were silent, women were not yet empowered, mechanization of production was gearing up and the world was between wars.
The new musical "Chaplin" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 47th Street has a book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Curtis. Although the show is beautiful to look at featuring many original and reshot films and sets by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz in cinematic shades of black and white, the gestalt of the evening was not as clearly wrought.
We learn that Charlie Chaplin came from humble London theatrical stock. His mum was a vaudevillian who took young Charlie (played so winsomely by Zachary Unger that for me he nearly stole the show) with her to her performances encouraging him to learn the craft.
Hannah Chaplin sings, "Look at people, see into their eyes, find a story, play your part." Christiane Noll plays Hannah Mum Chaplin with pathos and clear-voiced pitch; she has a mental breakdown when Charlie is but a tyke and he is sent weeping and gnashing to the notorious workhouse.
Chaplin grows up and slips into the family business on stage. The grown-up Chaplin, realized by Rob McClure, is less endearing than his childhood self, but not untalented. It took this reviewer a while to warm to his version of one of the greatest stars of the modern pantheon.
McClure can sing and move and grin, almost manically, but I never loved him. True, Chaplin was a tyrant and womanizer, but he was a brilliant entertainer and provocateur. One scene cleverly shows his first three wives as combatants in a boxing match with Chaplin with each singing the fight and waltzing away with bags of alimony -- one of the largest paid at the time.
Chaplin was the embodiment of the common man and his films drew heavily on the fear, sadness and destitution whirling in that class and about to bubble and engulf the country and world in a great depression. The Little Tramp character allowed Chaplin to introduce trenchant political ideas under the guise of pantomimed humor.
This is difficult meat for a musical to stew up and offer and Chaplin succeeds on occasions, but often I was unsure about the trajectory. There is no way this subject this can be glitter, sunshine and sugar, and yet often the production numbers and music, which until the finale was unmemorable, were too sweet.
Beyond the politics of the rise of Hitler’s Germany and America’s sideline sitting, the musical tackles Chaplin as exemplifying the early cult of celebrity and one who was finally hounded from the shores of California by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with terrifying certitude, chops and Fox Newsian vigor by Jenn Collella.
There is also a bravura performance by Michael McCormack who plays the producer Mack Sennet and Charlie’s drunken dad. Also sending in a fine performance as Chaplin’s brother Sydney is Wayne Alan Wilcox. And I was beguiled by Erin Mackey playing Chaplin’s fourth and final wife Oona O’Neill (yes, daughter of Eugene O’Neill) with gusto and grace.
These small roles do illuminate the life and times of Charlie Chaplin but even woven together they do not constitute as fine an evening as the glimpses of his films suggest. In the end it made me want to rush home to Netflix and make a Chaplin festival for myself.
"Chaplin" runs through Jan. 6 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47 Street. For info or tickets, call 212-560-2189 or visit www.shubertorg.com/BarrymoreTix