The most treacherous part of producing a biomusical about an iconic performer is finding an actor who can convincingly handle the role. The producers of “Chaplin” — this fall’s first Broadway offering — have passed that difficult test, with relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp. But they have come up all thumbs, alas, in the writing and staging departments. In the hands of composer-lyricist Chris Curtis (who has penned theme songs for the Discovery Channel) and Curtis’ co-librettist Tom Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers”), Chaplin’s remarkable life veers into cliche.
Let’s start with the good, which in this case amounts to McClure. The actor’s performance in the title role of last season’s “Where’s Charley” (as part of the annual Encores! series) offered a compelling reason to look forward to “Chaplin.” He is not a carbon copy of Charlie (no one’s likely to be), but he provides the essence of Chaplin, both as the tramp and as the older filmmaker without mustache. McClure clowns effectively but also conveys the intelligence and the impatience that drove Chaplin. The act-one transformation scene, in which the panto comic devises his film persona, is especially effective.
Elsewhere, though, the show’s creatives have transformed Charlie’s tale into just another Hollywood story of stardom today, oblivion tomorrow. “What’cha gonna do when it all falls down?” goes the theme song, which sets the tone.
According to the librettists, Chaplin’s big problem was that he slept with too many actresses. This doesn’t ring true; McClure’s Chaplin seems a thoroughly decent chap until we are suddenly told in act two that he is a lascivious rake. His career is destroyed, in this rendition, simply because he refuses to give an interview to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella). Miffed, she brands him a commie and has the governm ent send him into exile.
The authors paint Paulette Goddard, the accomplished actress who co-starred in two of Chaplin’s best films, married three distinguished men of the arts and left $20 million to NYU when she died in 1990, as a teenaged golddigger. They also portray Chaplin as a man desperate for children, thoroughly ignoring his sons with early wife Lita Grey, one of whom starred in two of Chaplin’s films.
Colella’s cruel villainess turns up in the second act, and the actress gives a performance that attracts cheers despite underwritten material. Christiane Noll is effective as Mama Chaplin, although she seems hearty until suddenly lapsing into insanity; Michael McCormick makes an entertaining Mack Sennett, and Jim Borstelmann adds a touch of pathos as Alf Reeves, the star’s loyal production manager.
The real Chaplin was unique, Hollywood’s only successful actor-director-writer-producer-composer ever. Curtis and Meehan treat him like one in a long line of once-talented has-beens. “Everybody wants to be me except me,” Charlie complains in the first act. “Where are all the people who once loved me?” he complains in the second.
Physical production is spare: In order to stage continuous Hollywood parties on an all-but-bare stage, far more than four dancing couples are required. Lighting designer Ken Billington comes off best, with a couple of startlingly impressive moments, and the physical concept of a black-and-white palette through most of the evening, save for one red rose, is intriguing.
One has to wonder, though, whether there was anything worth salvaging besides the performance of McClure, who starred in an earlier version of the show two years ago in La Jolla. Carlyle, who did mighty fine last season with “Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway,” does not impress here.
One lesson to be learned: Having 12 dancers in tramp costumes with mustaches do the famous “dinner roll dance” from “The Gold Rush” is not likely to be 12 times as effective as when the real Charlie did it.