Three things become abundantly clear while watching Mercury Theater Company’s production of “Chaplin,” the 2012 bio-musical about the creator of the Tramp and his epic rise and dramatic fall in silent film-era Hollywood.
The first is that the show is a devised star vehicle for the rare performer who can not only act and sing but convincingly emulate Charlie Chaplin’s endearing on-screen persona. Mastering the Tramp’s naiveté, pathos, subtlety and underlying athleticism is a difficult task made even more so by the show’s frequent display of archival film footage of the real Chaplin in action, which provides an immediate and potentially humbling point of comparison.
The second and third is that Brian Marshall was born for the role and there is nothing humbling about his portrayal.
“Chaplin” is a heartfelt but quite mediocre enterprise. It is weighed down by unmemorable songs by Christopher Curtis that, according to the Los Angeles Times’ review of the show, “sauté this simplistic summary in a light and lemony schmaltz.” The uninspiring score is complemented by an undistinguished script by Curtis and Thomas Meehan that The New York Times claimed “devoured the fabled silent comedian in a swarm of man-eating clichés.”
They weren’t wrong.
The musical presents Chaplin’s journey from childhood to English music-hall novice to movie contract player to superstar/director/distributor/studio owner and eventual political outcast with an understandable but insufferable sentimentality. Along the way, it sugarcoats Chaplin’s least admirable peccadillos, including his temper and notorious passion for very young girls.
The show also suffers from an insulting superficiality and penchant for poetic license. For instance, it romantically but falsely attributes the invention of the Tramp and his signature costuming – the tightly buttoned jacket, too-baggy trousers, cane, bowler hat and size 14 shoes worn on the wrong feet – to childhood inspirations. This is established in the opening number of the musical, “Look At All The People,” which is sung by his mother, Hannah, and leads to a memory-based construction of the costuming that happens to be the musical’s highlight.
Despite the musical’s failings, this Mercury production manages to find all that is entertaining in it.
This is due, in part, to the company’s access to a more streamlined script with six new songs that are earmarked for a London revival of the musical. But it is also due to Brault’s vision and Nicholas Thornburg and Michael Jarett’s scenic and lighting designs, which offer a simple and intriguing pretense of a backstage view of Chaplin’s life. And, in addition to Marshall’s mastery of the Little Tramp’s mannerisms and his mimicry of Chaplin’s most classic moments – including the remarkable final speech from “The Great Dictator” – he is surrounded by a solid, hardworking ensemble and talented supporting cast.
Particularly appealing and beautifully sung are the performances turned in by Evan Martin as Chaplin’s loyal half-brother Syd, Jonathan Bova as movie mogul Mack Sennett, and Sydney Fieseler as Oona O’Neill, Chaplin’s fourth and final wife. Nearly stealing the show is Jennifer Myor doing double-duty as Chaplin’s mother as well as the radio personality Hedda Hopper. As Hopper, Myor gets to show off her powerful belt in the revenge song “All Falls Down” in which she boasts about her personal campaign to ruin his career.
All this is supported by a wonderful seven-piece orchestra (Jason Falkosfsky on keyboard, David Ciucevich on reeds, McKinley Glasser on violin, Ryan Detwiler on bass and Nicholas Urbanic on percussion) under Eddie Carney’s musical direction.
Still, the musical’s best moments and the main reason to see this show belong to Marshall.