Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin

An alert to my colleagues in the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle: I hereby nominate Rob McClure for a Craig Noel Award, Lead Performance in a Musical, Male. His Charlie Chaplin in Limelight, at the La Jolla Playhouse, is ­outstanding.

McClure has the stiff-backed waddle, the wide, sad eyes, the gift for spontaneous pratfalls down pat. And when designer Linda Cho decks him in the Tramp’s signature outfit — “toothbrush” mustache, outsized black pants and tight coat, black derby, large shoes, and flexible bamboo cane — and designer Paul Gallo top-lights him with a yellow cone, the portrait’s complete: a pauper and a prince in one double-coded ­image.

McClure even goes his character one better; he has a voice Chaplin may have killed for. The combination of vulnerability and a house-sized, operatic delivery makes McClure ever unexpected, ever watchable. Now if the musical only had a book worthy of his — and Chaplin’s — ­talents.

Limelight suffers from the Sammy syndrome. As in the Old Globe’s recent musical tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., the book speed-reads an icon of the arts. It skims the highlights and wraps them in a facile win-love, lose-love, win-love-again formula. But it develops nothing. There isn’t time, since the chronological approach permits no side-trips. The book has a near-morbid fear of ­complexity.

Limelight moves with the flicker-speed of a silent movie. Few scenes offer revelations. In one of the most memorable, Chaplin’s on the set for the first time with Mack Sennett (even though Chaplin’s first director at Keystone was probably Henry Lehrman). There’s no rehearsal: just a woman, a bench, and a tree. McClure turns all three into antagonists: flailing, tripping — and often just floating down — animating the inanimate. McClure performs each bit with Chaplinesque fluidity (Chaplin said he wasn’t a clown, he was a “mimetic satirist”). The script crowns the scene with an irony: Sennett couldn’t see the ­humor.

Two myths have grown around Chaplin: of the Tramp, and of the man, who hobnobbed with Gandhi and Einstein and whose sexual exploits would dominate today’s headlines. Although his most recent biographer, Simon Louvish, says Chaplin tried to reject the Tramp his entire career, the mythical version keeps him intact. And the human Chaplin’s more unsightly wrinkles get ironed. (Louis Berg wrote that he “seemed in every way the complete opposite of his screen impersonation.”) But why was he attracted to teenage girls almost exclusively? (Oona O’Neill was 17 when he met her.) And was he a Communist? No, the musical says abruptly, he was a “humanist.” (But he called the Russians his “comrades” and was, at the very least, a “fellow traveler.”) Chaplin was Whitmanesque. But, as if afraid we won’t like him if we knew the whole story, the musical whitewashes the artist/man who contained ­multitudes.

Limelight depoliticizes Chaplin. He has had no real say in his life, just moves blindly forward. But he always had a say, and when he finally spoke out, un-Tramp-like, against the system, exploitation, and injustice, the more the media and the government hounded him, eventually causing his ­exile.

Although the production’s quite polished — designer Alexander Dodge’s scenes reconfigure in seconds — other performers also suffer from the abridgement. Ashley Brown, as Chaplin’s mother Hannah, sings one of Christopher Curtis’s best songs, “Look at All the People” (showing how Chaplin honed his Dickensian eye for details), then disappears. She returns, in the end, as Oona O’Neill, wife #4 and daughter of Eugene, singing “What Only Love Can See” beautifully (but was Oona, as the double-casting implies, just a mother ­figure?).

J. Edgar Hoover should have been, if not a character, at least an Alfred Hitchcock–type cameo, since he kept files on Chaplin (and the Marx Brothers) from the 1930s on. Instead, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper is the red-scared antagonist. Jenn Colella ladles Hopper’s three songs with vitriol — in particular, the vengeful “When It All Falls Down.” But in many ways, Hopper’s a safe villain. Careful not to offend, the musical gives her too much weight in Chaplin’s ­harassment.

Matthew Scott plays Chaplin’s brother Sydney. Scott’s rapport with McClure reveals more about the comedian than anything in the script, which, after all the brisk pacing and production numbers, prompts one to ask, “Okay, sure, but who was ­he?”


Partial Attempts to Define Chaplin’s ­Genius:
Mack Sennett: “There are many comedians who work mechanically, with too apparent force, assuming the attitude: ‘Now I’m going to make them laugh!’ But Chaplin was wholly unconscious of his audience, just as relaxed in front of twenty-five hundred people as if he’d been sitting at ease in his own ­bedroom.”

Fernando Vela: “Chaplin is a tramp who has lost his way in the world. He lived in a different world, but one day, without realizing it, he half-opened a door and fell, making a famous clown’s entrance, into a world with fewer dimensions, where the mirrors cannot be stepped through, where every step is a ­stumble.”

Charles Chaplin: “Ideas come from an intense desire for them. [My method is] sheer perseverance to the point of ­madness.” ■

Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis, book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan
La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger; cast: Rob McClure, Ashley Brown, Jenn Colella, Ron Orbach, Jake Evan Schwencke, Matthew Scott, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Courtney Corey, Kirsten Scott, Roland Rusinek; scenic design, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Paul Gallo; sound, Jon Weston; musical director, Bryan Perri; choreographer, Warren Carlyle
Playing through October 17; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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