The enormous career of film legend Charles Chaplin has resisted numerous chronicling efforts, among them an abortive 1983 tuner starring Anthony Newley, the 1992 Robert Downey film bio and numerous biographies, not excepting the master’s own highly selective memoir. The latest casualty is “Limelight,” a La Jolla Playhouse collaboration between freshman tunesmith Christopher Curtis and vet librettist Thomas Meehan (“Annie”) that has its moments but falls into the usual trap of trying to cover too much ground. In the process, the tuner turns glib and superficial.
For a pleasing if derivative kickoff, young Charlie (Jake Schwenke) makes his London music-hall debut with mum (Ashley Brown), who teaches him to “Look at All the People” to fuel his artistic sensibilities. Her crisp “Mary Poppins” air (and no wonder, since Brown originated that role) doesn’t prepare us for her breakdown five minutes later when she’s accused of unfitness; nevertheless, we’re to take her commitment to Bedlam as coloring Charlie’s entire hard-knock life.
Flash forward to Fred Karno’s vaudeville, where Curtis’ cakewalky cavalcade of similar sounding tunes gets its brightest showcase. Likable Matthew Scott is wasted as Syd, his brother’s exposition deliverer and conscience, but Rob McClure’s Charlie is the real deal: He has all the mannerisms and acrobatics down, can sing when required, exudes elegance and is actually funny when re-creating bits with Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle. (But it’s a shame Meehan and Curtis don’t dramatize the moment when the vaudevillian sees his first flicker and thinks, “that could be me.”)
A chorus line of lookalike Little Tramps all perform well in choreographer Warren Carlyle’s clever re-creation of a famous contest (in which Charlie actually came in third), but you never lose sight of McClure, who scores the evening’s single biggest laugh by channeling how Chaplin must have conceived “The Great Dictator” while running some Hitler footage.
Such starpower merits better material, but once first wife Mildred (Brooke Sunny Moriber) deceives Chaplin with a fake pregnancy, his previous self-possession derails and so does “Limelight.”
Power ballad “Someday” (“Somebody’s going to want me”) closes act one as an instant contender for the number-one song you never want to be trapped in an elevator with. After intermission, Charlie has bewilderingly morphed into a heartless womanizer, but there’s no time to linger because here comes World War II, and suddenly he’s a “premature antifascist” with a social conscience.
No thesp could navigate these crazy shoals, and McClure is reduced to moping about the stage reliving his lost youth (perhaps easier to do with Brown being creepily double-cast as his mom and his final wife). Time zooms past, children are ignored and wife Paulette Goddard is dropped, while Hedda Hopper, in the crass, unfair incarnation of Jenn Colella, is made the sole villain in Chaplin’s HUAC difficulties.
But could things go any other way? Without some creative leap of conceptual imagination, any stock biotuner is going to degenerate into distortions, cliches and “and then I wrote” snippets. Period.
No reason is given for the departure of original helmer Michael Unger, now sharing credit with Carlyle. But if it was on the grounds of how the biography was to be structured, then more power to whichever helmer tried in vain to hold the line against the pedestrian.