Limelight – The Story of Charlie Chaplin
A sterling production now emerges from the middle of the LaJolla Playhouse’s season. This musical improbably presents the arc of Charlie Chaplin’s career with wit, insight and aplomb. Led confidently by Rob McClure in the title role, the talented cast moves the action from the grimy underbelly of London to the sun splashed setting of Los Angeles. Cristopher Curtis wrote the music and lyrics, and worked with Thomas Meehan on the book.
Chaplin’s story opens in the music hall of London, where the young boy fills in for his errant father. Charlie and his mother wow the vaudeville audience, and Charlie is soon on his way. The production’s opener “The Music Hall” is a strong harbinger of the delight to follow. Wanting little more than to make ‘em laugh, Chaplin and his brother Syd are soon faced with the Dickensian bleakness of a boys’ work house when separated from their mother. The grimness of this memory haunts him for decades, finally purged when Chaplin films his classic The Kid.
Chaplin’s growth is impressively compressed in the stage production, most poignantly in a sequence when the young brothers escape the work house, emerging as young men as the set is changed. But the brothers soon split, Chaplin on an invitation to be in the flickers in America, Syd staying behind to care for their ailing mother. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design moves smoothly to Mack Sennett’s movie set in Hollywood, where Chaplin almost fails to adapt to the speed with which movies are made. In the play’s first high point, we watch Chaplin draw on characters recalled from his youth, melding them into his alter ego The Tramp. The transformation McClure undergoes in “The Tramp Shuffle” is stunning. I did not want to blink for fear of missing the magic.
Chaplin leaps from success to success, garnering the chance to direct his first film, opening his own production studio and controlling the film-making process in unprecedented fashion. His career was contemporaneous with several of the key components of the last century: the rise of film as an art form, both World Wars, the cult of the personality, the public obsession of the rich and famous. Chaplin undoubtedly played a key role in all four components, but it was the first for which he will be remembered longest.
Chaplin did not shy from politics in his art. His bold caricature of Hitler as a buffoon in The Great Dictator preceded Pearl Harbor by a year. By the time the film was released, Chaplin was one of the most admired men in the world and Hitler the most despised. Chaplin’s stage mustache was in place long before Hitler rose to prominence.
But it was Chaplin’s politics that irked jealous people such as the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Played with Cruella de Ville – like venom by Jenn Colella, Hopper stirred public sentiment against Chaplin. Although there were other Brits in American film (Stan Laurel, Alfred Hitchcock), only Chaplin was asked why he never became an American citizen. An odd assortment of people ganged up on Chaplin, led by Hopper and joined by the likes of pre-TV Ed Sullivan, the American Legion and the FBI. Chaplin’s proclivity with women set the stage for a bogus claim of paternity, resulting in the revocation of his re-entry visa. His left-leaning politics off screen made him the target of McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt, and Chaplin stayed abroad for decades.
“Where Are All the People” is the poignant showstopper toward the end of the second act, Chaplin agonizing over the love he once engendered globally and the solitary, exiled life to which he had been forced. The rejection was overpowering for him, but his love for his third and final wife Oona (Ashley Brown) kept him happy.
The musical draws to a close toward the moment when Chaplin’s remarkable public acceptance is reborn, when he is given a lifetime achievement Oscar “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of the century.”
In the most stirring moment of the production, the astounding finale “This Man,” the cast of characters pay homage to Chaplin in a bravura set piece.
I have not been as moved in a production since seeing Billy Elliott in London. (Intriguingly, both plays chart the transformation of underclass Brits). Chaplin is essentially reincarnated by McClure, who has a robust and assured singing voice, and a stellar, nimble physicality. The songs effectively drive the plot forward, which is no small feat given the monumental challenge of distilling the scope of Chaplin’s lifestory.
The LaJolla Playhouse has developed a remarkable history of sending challenging musicals to great success. Limelight will continue that legacy.