Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chaplin (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

In this absorbing musical drama – with its superior book by Thomas Meehan and composer Christopher Curtis – star Rob McClure gives an incredible, multi-faceted performance as silent film pioneer Charlie Chaplin, one that, even this early in the season, may be the one to beat come awards time.

Christiane Noll is his mother Hannah who had a mental breakdown when Chaplin was still a child, resulting in abandonment issues that – as Meehan and Curtis’ book would have it -- haunted him all his life, permeating his films. Noll’s recent “Closer Than Ever” co-star at York, Jenn Colella, shares the stage with her again, this time as treacherous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who sets out to destroy Chaplin, first by tarring him with the Red brush, and then with a trumped up paternity suit charge.

Jim Borstelmann as his production manager Alf Reeves, Erin Mackey as his young fourth wife Oona O’Neill, Michael McCormick as director Mack Sennett and a couple of other roles, Zachary Unger as both the Young Charlie and child star Jackie Coogan, and Wayne Alan Wilcox as his brother Sydney Chaplin are all solid.

Curtis’ songs are not particularly memorable on first hearing, but are never less than pleasant, and register as a nice throwback to the sort of score one might have heard in London's West End in the late 1950s or early 1960s. They rarely impede – and sometimes actually enhance -- the generally serious dramatic elements.

Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography are quite stylish – including a ballet of Chaplin look-a-likes which concludes the first act -- and support, like all the production elements, the interestingly stylized structure.

Beowulf Boritt’s black and white scenic design and the complementary costumes by Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz, Jon Driscoll’s projections, and Ken Billington’s dramatic lighting including, at one point, criss-crossing spotlights, work in harmony to present a series of striking visuals.

I appreciated Scott Lehrer and Drew Levy’s muted sound design, in this age of over-amplification. Music Director Bryan Perri leads his forces with sensitivity.

(The Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St., or 212-239-6200)
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