La Jolla Playhouse basks in Chaplin’s ‘Limelight’
By Carol Davis
LA JOLLA, California — Right out of the gate…don’t miss Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan (book) and Christopher Curtis (music and lyrics). It is now in its world-premiere production at the Playhouse, where it is directed by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger. I am confident that there are big things in store for it, like a Broadway run. I never underestimate the powers of a really, really good show!
Let’s start off with Rob McClure who plays the inimitable Chaplin. He was recently seen as Princeton in Avenue Q in Broadway and the national touring productions.
When you’re good, you’re good and he good as in excellent. He is talented and has just the right look and stature of a Chaplin as he weaves his way through the Chaplinesque years and more. With Warren Carlyle’s choreography and Linda Cho’s perfect costume designs, McClure is at home as Chaplin.
He is nimble and quite adept at the silent film star’s antics of falling down, and that famous rolling up and prancing about in his duck like walk-shuffle. (“Tramp Shuffle”) with a cane that is as flexible as the star himself.
Curtis and Meehan knit Chaplin’s troubled childhood, his rise to fame in England’s vaudeville houses, to his to his many infamous dalliances with women, (and subsequent marriages to four very young women which caused him problems later on) on Alexander Dodge’s framework sets that move on and off the stage with ease.
It follows his becoming the world famous ‘Tramp’, to making The Great Dictator to his exile from the U.S. to Switzerland to his ultimate acceptance back to Hollywood (after the ‘crazies’ of the McCarthy Communist witch hunts) with his acceptance of his much deserved honorary Oscar in 1972. A clear-cut score that moves the production along and gives the show a comfortable, recognizable yet exciting flow complements his story.
Chaplin, whose life is pretty much an open book, might only be remembered by younger audiences for his movies like The Great Dictator or from clips of Limelight or The Tramp/ Because of his banishment in the 50’s, my growing up years, I too knew of his movies and sorted stories of his life, but this show puts together more puzzle pieces, while omitting many more, in a way most can relate or remember.
Chaplin who died in 1977 left the states in 1952 for what was billed as trip home to the U.K. for the London Premiere of Limelight and was never allowed back here. It seemed that J. Edgar Hoover instructed the INS to revoke his entry permit, exiling him so he could not continue his alleged political leanings.
With the help of the yellow press, McCarthy (who accused him of being un-American), the fact that his ex’s and then some came out of the woodwork to smear him to the likes of Hedda Hopper, (played excellently by Jenna Colella), anyone with so called ‘leftist’ leanings (think of the Tea Party mantra today) were taunted, singled out and oft times persecuted. As in his case, exiled.
It mattered not that he along with Douglas Fairbanks became spokespersons for Liberty Bonds at the outbreak of the First World War.
It mattered not that Chaplin took on Hitler in The Great Dictator as an act of defiance against Nazism, or that he was ridiculed as either being Jewish (never substantiated) or being sympathetic toward the Jews, the mood of the country was in such a frenzy over Communism that all sensibilities went out the window.
Chaplin was a genius in his field. After hooking up with Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle his star rose. Sennett hired him for his Keystone Film Company. It was the beginning of the era of the silent film. Chaplin’s success at Keystone with The Tramp prompted him to form his own company, which he later did. He continued to play The Tramp character through many of his films. He later co-founded United Artists with several of his actor friends.
Curtis and Meehan’s book pretty much document the life of Chaplin and Curtis’ music and lyrics, more than being hummable; will most likely be dubbed a musical drama. As mentioned earlier, the music propels the story and there are some standout production numbers throughout. Can’t help but love “Tramp Shuffle” number with the ensemble members all Chaplin look-a-likes doing the Tramp Shuffle in a great musical showstopper.
Under the seasoned baton of musical director Bryan Perri and Douglas Besterman’s orchestrations the music soared from ‘The Music Hall’ which gets us in the mood right off, followed by “Look At All The People” sung beautifully by Ashley Brown who plays Charlie’s mother, Hanna (who was a performer as well before she suffered a nervous breakdown) and later on as Oona (O’Neill) his last wife whom he married when he was 54 and she was 18. It is bookended with “Where Have All The People Gone?” in Act II when his life starts falling apart and we see his stardom unravel.
The entire cast shines from McClure to Jake Evan Schwenke, who plays Charlie as a youngster to LJ Benet as the young half-brother Sydney (who does a wonderful routine with Schwenke with a loaf of bread and a soft shoe around a Keystone looking cop) to Ron Orbach who plays Sennett to Matthew Scott who plays the older Sydney.
The women stand out as well. In fact on the talent side there isn’t a weak link. The ensemble includes Sara Edwards, Alyssa Maria, Brooks Sunny Moriber and Kristine Scott to name a few. The only criticisms I have are the length (it can be cut) and I would like to have seen more snippets of Chaplin’s silent films.
Speaking of snippets, Zachary Brown’s silent film projections and Paul Gallo’s lighting designs do wonders combining past and present Chaplin’s and compliment Carlyle’s choreography especially at the finale (“This Man”).
Overall, this is one show you can brag about.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: September 7th – October 17th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Musical
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: $51.00-$80.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss theatre
Theatre critic Davis is based in San Diego