We can’t all go out in a blaze of glory, so yes, the second act of Chaplin is indeed a bit of a downer. (It’s overstuffed, too. Several of director/choreographer Warren Carlyle’s hackneyed dance numbers add nothing but overtime.) Even so, Christopher Curtis’ musical – he got an assist on the book by proven master Thomas Meehan of Annie fame – manages to wrest maximum drama from Chaplin’s long, slow fade.
In a brilliant performance that captures Chaplin’s essence without resorting to mere mimicry, Rob McClure is equally effective as the up-and-coming star of music hall stage and screen and as the silent holdout who, eclipsed by the talkies, gradually loses his grip on the public imagination.
In prefatory scenes featuring talented youngster Zachary Unger and the superb Christiane Noll as Chaplin’s increasingly unstable mother, we’re shown the underlying neediness that impels many a performer.
Even though Chaplin quickly conquers Hollywood (Michael McCormick pulls off a terrific patter song as comedy king Mack Sennett), Charlie the workhouse survivor – he was institutionalized at age seven – can never quite revel in having it made. For one thing, there’s his disconcerting Humbertian penchant for mercenary jailbait. There’s also a persistent thorn in his side, in the person of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella), who – in this telling – gets her panties in a bunch over Chaplin’s refusal to sit for an interview and, in retaliation, denounces him as a commie to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Colella irradiates the rant “All Falls Down” with such a blaze of irrational animus, one can’t help cheering her on – the performer, that is. If this peak moment were the only takeaway, it would be enough. But McClure stands ready to wrest tears with his rendition of Chaplin’s acceptance speech for a long-overdue honorary Oscar, tendered in 1972 after he'd spent two decades in exile.
The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator (all referenced in passing here) – surely these classics earned their creator his due. Even if you don’t start out an avid Chaplin fan, you’re likely to come away inclined to reconsider.