Today, I was fortunate to see "Chaplin: The Musical" on Broadway. I can only write my review of this show as one who truly, madly, deeply loves Chaplin the artist and the man. If you want objectivity, sorry, I can't oblige.
First things first: the show (book by Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis; music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis) is neither a biography nor an examination of his work, although both are included. Instead, it is a musical portrait of a time and a colossus of the era. America at the dawn of the twentieth century was a place where dreams could be lived and the past could be obliterated. Like Gatsby, those with a shady, painful, uneducated - you fill in the blank - past could reinvent the present and no place provided a better opportunity for all of life's refugees to start anew than Hollywood, California, USA. All you needed was determination and a dream.
The early Hollywood scenes were especially well done. True, Mack Sennett is reduced to a rather bombastic bully, Mabel Normand is barely mentioned and Edna Purviance is totally omitted (I was sad about that), but, as I said, this is not a biography. The freewheeling, frenetic pace of the early movie-making era is joyfully presented and the audience loved it. The entire production is done in shades of black, white, sepia and gray. Only one special occasions do we see red, usually in the form of a rose, as a symbol of love.
Chaplin's personal story is well known. The show focuses on his adoration of and traumatic separation from his mentally ill mother, Hannah. The complicated relationship Chaplin had with her as a child and as an adult are beautifully portrayed. His pain, sadness and shame in her and himself are the thread that was woven over and over again into his work his entire life. In a film, order can be restored. In a film, a mother's love can triumph. In a film, a little boy is safe.
The women, the marriages and divorces, the political damage - all are touched upon, as are many of the great films. The music is fine and touching and blends well with the story. We know that exile is coming, but we also know that he will find the love of his life, Oona O'Neill. Their courtship and love affair are charmingly portrayed, culminating in his 1972 appearance at the Academy Awards.
No matter how wonderful all of the above is, however, there would be no show without Rob McClure. He is magical as Chaplin, never a caricature, always a whole human being. He moves like him, looks like him, and for those of us who love Charlie, this is about as close as we will ever get.
Ultimately, this is the story of a great man, a genius, whose fame is immortal. Almost 100 years after his first film, his image is still vital. There are many stars of bygone eras whose photos would draw a blank if you asked a young person to identify them. But Chaplin never draws a blank stare. They might not know his work, but they know the image. The Little Tramp is forever because he touched that innocent, undamaged yearning in our hearts. It was a creation of genius. Once you open your heart to him, he will never leave.
And now, I am going to watch a Chaplin DVD (preferably one with Edna Purviance) because I just love that man!