By Charlene Baldridge / SDUN Theatre Critic
Seldom was there a life better suited for a musical than that of early Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin, who captivated the world with his silent film character, The Little Tramp–he of the wobbly legs, the odd shuffle, the bent cane and bowler hat. And, as he seems to imply, he whose moustache was stolen from him by Der Fuehrer.
After becoming fascinated with Chaplin, songwriter/lyricist Christopher Curtis started writing songs about the entertainer ten years ago. He began weaving together fact, legend and fiction to surround the songs, then realized he needed a director, and through his agent connected with Michael Unger. Following a couple of workshops Curtis and Unger were joined by renowned book writer Thomas Meehan. Their musical, “Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin,” opened Sept. 19 at La Jolla Playhouse. With co-direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle, the audience-pleasing work continues through Oct. 17.
“Limelight” is compelling and as fascinating for what it omits as it is for what it celebrates. Chaplin was a complicated man. He was separated from his mother at age 10 and spent the rest of his life looking for her. At least that is Curtis and company’s premise, underscored when one notices that his mother and his final, lasting love are played by the same woman.
The musical’s greatest virtue lies in the magnificent title performance of Rob McClure, a veteran of “Avenue Q,” both on Broadway and in the first national tour. He is an astonishingly facile physical comedian, tumbling, juggling, singing and shuffling his way right into our heads and hearts.
The next greatest virtue is the scenic design of Alexander Dodge, which allows the story to move gracefully from scene to scene in a life that stretches from Charlie’s prepubescent vaudeville debut with his mother in a London music hall, through workhouse to stealing bread on the streets with his older brother, Sydney. Having been taught mime by Hannah, their mother, the boys attract the notice of a vaudeville impresario, and in no time, Charlie is a headliner invited to join Mack Sennett’s Keystone Films in the U.S.
From thence, the trajectory is steep, creation of the tramp, many films, and serial marriages and affairs with numerous exceptionally young females, truncated for the sake of brevity and to keep our protagonist from seeming like a pedophile. The musical encompasses Charlie’s communist sympathies, which led to exile in England, and ends soon after his 1972 Tony Award for lifetime achievement.
The major characters are Charlie and his mentally fragile mother, Hannah, beautifully portrayed and sung with amazing dramatic and vocal range by Ashley Brown; Sydney, played by the attractive Matthew Scott; Charlie’s poison-pen nemesis, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by Jenn Colella; and Oona O’Neill Chaplin, his last wife, also played by Brown. Two marvelous young actors, LJ Benet and Jake Schwenke, play Sydney and Charlie as children.
The most effective musical numbers are “Tramp Shuffle,” performed by Sennett, Charlie and the company, and “This Man,” Charlie and Oona’s “What Only Love Can See,” and the finale, “This Man.” The show closes with an absolutely spine-tingling image.
“Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin” continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 17, Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, www.lajollaplayhouse.org or (858) 550-1010.