Sunday, September 26, 2010

Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin

Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin
Photo: Criag Schwartz

If affecting an audience is the ultimate goal of an artist, Charlie Chaplin will forever be considered a master at the craft. Silent films like The Kid, City Lights and The Gold Rush have immortalized his ability to capture emotion onscreen with humor and pathos as no other.

Talented actor Rob McClure gets his chance to recreate the iconic Chaplin in the La Jolla Playhouse world premiere musical Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, written by Thomas Meehan (three time Tony Award winner for Annie, Hairspray and The Producers), and up-and-coming composer Christopher Curtis.

Not only does McClure have a gorgeous singing voice and easy everyman quality onstage, but his dexterity with the difficult physical comedy is even more impressive. As Chaplin’s most popular film persona, The Tramp, he makes the perfectly executed Keystone-style slapstick combinations and comedic bits of business appear effortless. He also has those amazingly sad eyes that Chaplin was known for…windows into the soul that drink in the audience and elicit a deep emotional response.

Together with a supporting cast of mostly Broadway veterans, a very special chemistry takes place, especially with Ashley Brown who plays fourth wife Oona. Most well-known for her starring role in Mary Poppins on Broadway, Brown shines as the true love of Chaplin’s life, bringing an unexpected but welcome peace to an otherwise unsettled man.

She also doubles as Chaplin’s mother Hannah, a vivacious woman who played the vaudeville stages in London. Her scenes with young Charlie (Jake Evan Schwenke) are a beautiful expression of the playfulness and love that mother and son shared until mental illness destroyed their world. In “Look At All The People” she gives him her greatest lesson about observing the behavior of strangers, “Find the story and make it your own. Then just play the part.”

Her words would later become a guiding star as he struggled to find inspiration for his characters. Creating The Tramp for the first time is a scene I won’t forget, and judging from the hush that fell over the audience as they watched it happen, neither will they. In Chaplin’s words, “I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.”

The entire cast offers up fine performances, most notably Matthew Scott as Chaplin’s older brother Sydney, Ron Ohrbach as director Mack Sennett, and Eddie Korbich as British music hall impresario Fred Karno. Jenn Colella is Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist whose vendetta against Chaplin would turn the tide of public favor against him. Her number “When It All Falls Down” is one of the show’s powerful highlights.

Rather than cover the entire breadth of Chaplin’s life and career, Limelight focuses on some of the most significant events; his days as a child performing in the musical halls of London with his mother, running away from the workhouse, early success on the vaudeville stage, and landing in America where he would experience not only great joy but great controversy as well. Chaplin was a perfectionist in his work, and his films often commented on the social and political injustices of society. But today’s hero is tomorrow’s villain, and Chaplin could not escape being labeled both at different times in his career.

Musical director Bryan Perri and two directors, Michael Unger and Warren Carlyle contributed to the staging of Limelight. Carlyle’s inventive choreography further enhances the action and adds some delightful surprises (wait until you see how the “table ballet” is recreated), and scenic designer Alexander Dodge has given Limelight a visually cinematic feel that is quite effective, using panels that converge like closing shots from an old time movie. Lighting designer Paul Gallo’s progression of light and shadow creates a vivid emotional extension of Chaplin’s black and white world, and Linda Cho’s costumes add a period-perfect authenticity.

Zachary Borovay’s black and white projections however are the pièce de résistance. Chaplin films dated prior to 1918 are now part of the public domain and can be used without additional licensing fees. Several are featured in the telling of the this story, but one additional clip not yet in the public domain has been recreated by Rob McClure only a hundred yards or so from the playhouse’s front door. There, on a simple dirt path, it brings full circle the journey of Limelight, and provides a last look at an artist whose greatest gift was reaching the humanity in us all.

This wonderfully entertaining musical runs through October 17, 2010 in La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre. For tickets and more information go to

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