Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Barrymore Theatre, Broadway
With “Chaplin” now on stage, having just opened on Broadway at the Barrymore, the Big Question surfaces once again. Is Charlie Chaplin Yiddish—or merely British? Certainly he fits the long-standing stereotype—or at least his memorable creation, the Little Tramp, fits that image. Here is the long-suffering little anti-hero, the schlemiel—who could easily be the powerless Jew in a hostile, anti-semitic world. And indeed we American Jews, again and again, have proudly proclaimed him as one of our own.
It is a legacy that Chaplin himself chose to acknowledge, at least when it suited his purpose. But the facts are that there is no proof of this legacy. Chaplin, and his older half-brother Sydney were the children of music hall performers. The mother was Christian and all indications (at least on paper) are that Sydney’s father was Jewish while Charlie’s father was not. But Charlie Chaplin’s background was indeed murky, perhaps even to his mother. Whether Charles Chaplin, Sr. was his father is open to question. And genes or early environment or an unknown quality within created the boy and man who would become the great Chaplin. Who can identify the sources of genius?
In any event, in viewing the rise and fall of Chaplin, every one knows where his sympathies lay, proof of which are spelled out in “The Great Dictator,” his own blitzkrieg attack on Hitler. But Chaplin’s expulsion from America in 1952 was probably based on the fact that his FBI file combined his being Jewish, Communist, a Russian sympathizer and a ravager of under-aged girls. (Only the latter, unfortunately, was unquestioningly true.)
Whatever Chaplin’s origins and affiliations, his genius is a fact. And how appropriate that a modern musical surfaces to pay tribute to that genius. But does it truly pay tribute? What of the “Chaplin,” which has just opened at the Barrymore on Broadway?
A quick look at the show’s positives reveals a series of smoothly choreographed and impeccably executed company numbers, all appropriately staged in black-and-white. (After all, Charlie Chaplin personifies those early Hollywood days, with their black-and-white silent films.) Secondly, video tapes on a large screen recreate the Chaplin films effectively integrated into the on-stage proceedings. But, above all, is the lead himself---Rob McClure--in the title role. When McClure first emerges as the Little Tramp, perfect in look and manner, the show finds its meaning. Though McClure is adequate when he portrays Charlie Chaplin, he is at his best as the legendary Little Tramp. From that initial moment of emergence to the next-to-final scene, when the Little Tramp shuffles off into the sunset, McClure provides the heart of the show.
Or whatever heart exists. The difficulty, from start to finish, is the book. Writers Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan skip lightly over the Chaplin bio, giving the nod to each event, but never probing into relationships. Particularly disappointing is the treatment of Charlie and his devoted, but mentally ill, mother. Where is the schmaltz, the heart, the soul in these potentially poignant scenes? And Charlie’s scenes with his numerous wives and his colleagues are duly noted, but little more. It is only those exchanges with his brother Sydney (ably played by Wayne Alan Wilcox) which offer substance sadly lacking elsewhere.
Nor do the music and lyrics of Christopher Curtis lift the show to a higher level. Granted that the numbers sung with considerable clout by Jenn Colella as Hedda Hopper offer strong moments in the show. But on the whole, the tunes, though workable, pleasant, and sometimes moving, will not live on in memory.
Though Chaplin is certainly a subject worthy of a major musical drama, it is yet to be written---or, indeed, to be rewritten. Would the Little Tramp, looking down from on high, be satisfied with this interpretation as it now stands? We think not.
September 16, 2012