Theater review: ‘Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin’ at La Jolla Playhouse

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Charlie Chaplin, the silent movie star who only reluctantly made the transition to talkies, probably isn’t the ideal subject for a musical. Of course, anything is possible with creative inspiration, so one shouldn’t rule out the prospect of the Tramp powering home an 11 o’clock number.

Unfortunately, the imagination behind “Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin,” which had its world premiere Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse, doesn’t rise to the challenge with anything resembling bold invention. Christopher Curtis, a cabaret artist who wrote the music and lyrics and collaborated on the book with Thomas Meehan (whose veteran résumé includes “Hairspray,” “The Producers,” and “Annie”), allows the most sentimental traditions of musical theater to guide him.

The plot breaks down into a series of comic-strip panels that review Chaplin’s life from his difficult boyhood in England through his heady days of Hollywood success to the personal and political scandals that left him a mellow old man in exile. The songs sauté this simplistic summary in a light and lemony schmaltz. Directed by choreographer Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger (Carlyle took over the reins during rehearsal), the production isn’t able to mitigate these flaws. The most that can be said is that the cast is marshaled efficiently and the clichés are greeted with a tip of Chaplin’s bowler and a clown’s forgiving smile.


Puppy-eyed and impressively flexible, Robert McClure provides a pleasant enough approximation of Chaplin’s physical comedy. He slips and shuffles with an erstwhile grace, and after his character gets the idea for what would become Chaplin’s signature costume, he even looks the part. But something’s conspicuously missing.

Writer and film critic James Agee once observed that the success of Chaplin’s performance had less to do with the gags than with his genius for “inflection — the perfect, changeful shading of his physical and emotional attitudes toward the gags. Funny as his bout with the Murphy bed is, the glance of awe, expostulation, and helpless, almost whimpering desire for vengeance which he darts at this infernal machine are even better.”

Chaplin was roundly celebrated for his ability to render a soul in the language of silence. Narrower in his emotional approach, McClure delivers the pratfalls with a forlorn expression that harks back rather reductively to Chaplin’s childhood trauma. The fault belongs not to this talented actor but to the schematic production, which offers up Chaplin’s early years as an explanation for everything but his notorious penchant for underage women. Scraping by on the music hall circuit with his mother (Ashley Brown, who also takes on the role of Chaplin’s last wife, Oona), Charlie and his brother, Sydney, were sent to a workhouse after their mother fell behind on the rent. The boys (Jake Evan Schwenke plays young Charlie, and LJ Benet plays young Sydney) manage to escape their prison, but their mother has a nervous breakdown that prevents a joyful reunion.

Before losing her mind, however, she hands Charlie a piece of theatrical advice that winds up serving him well. It’s contained in the song “Look At All the People,” and it urges him as he makes his way in the world to “try and find the story / behind each one’s disguise.” What could have been a touching insight is presented as one of the keys to his artistry. The emphasis, like so much else in this distorting show, caricatures reality.

Hollywood success arrives, after a slightly bumbling early break, without too much delay. But even when he sits at the helm of his own studio, Chaplin is still the hurt boy who just wants to be loved. There’s nothing far-fetched about this, but that’s no justification for the mawkish anthem “Someday,” which closes the musical’s first half with the lyrics “Someday somebody’s going to need me / Someday somebody’s going to love me more.” The straightforward staging of this number only exacerbates the clobbering corniness.

The second act revolves around Chaplin’s war with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella), who doesn’t appreciate his haughty dismissal of her request for an interview and sets out to paint him as a communist with a philandering streak. Colella robustly renders “When It All Falls Down,” Hedda’s rousing revenge song, but this recap of showbiz history is portrayed with all the subtlety of a Saturday morning cartoon.

There’s a fraternal sweetness between Charlie and Sydney (Matthew Scott) that is affecting to watch, and when Oona, daughter of Eugene O’Neill, arrives like an angel of mercy to rescue Charlie from his wildness, it’s hard not to be relieved. Too bad the sincerity of the actors is undermined by the sappy dialogue and lyrics.

The production moves swiftly on Alexander Dodge’s versatile set that is at its lively best when Zachary Borovay’s projections usher us back to the cinematic past. Music director Bryan Perri conducts an orchestra that is called on to underscore the obvious, but the show has so much territory to cover that there’s no time for stalling. The score hurtles us along with sufficient cheer and generic good will.

Yet what an elaborate trifle! If “Limelight” honors Chaplin, it does so by reminding us how much more he was able to convey with only a fraction of the panoply.

— Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

‘Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin,’ La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Oct. 17. $51-$80. (858) 550-1010 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Photos: Top: Rob McClure. Bottom: Ashley Brown and Rob McClure. Credit: Craig Schwartz