Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, San Diego

Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin

Music and Lyrics by Christopher Curtis
Book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan
World Premiere directed by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger
Mandell Weiss Theatre
La Jolla Playhouse
San Diego
Sept. 7-Oct. 17, 2010

www.lajollaplayhouse.com/the-season/plays/limelight
(See video clip below.)

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Robert McClure and Ashley Brown from
“Limelight” at La Jolla Playhouse
Photo by Craig Schwartz

“Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin” is the most anticipated world premiere musical at La Jolla Playhouse this fall. You guessed it: it focuses on the life and work of the iconic movie tycoon. From the London music hall performances of the late 1800s to the movie sets of Hollywood and all the way to a bittersweet end, this production, directed by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger (Carlyle also choreographed the show), accompanies Chaplin through his search for love and redemption.

Christopher Curtis wrote the music and Lyrics and co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan. Curtis first intended to do a piece on film actors of the silent era, but soon was overwhelmed with the richness of the material he found on Chaplin. His fascination with the comedian fueled his creative spirit.

Playing the part of Charlie Chaplin is Robert McClure, who recently starred as “Princeton” in the Broadway and national touring productions of “Avenue Q.” McClure embodies the character so well, we never doubt him for a second. His singing is beautiful and heartfelt, but above all, his mastery of Chaplin’s physical comedy is remarkable. He flawlessly brings to life some powerful and magical moments in scenes such as Chaplin’s first movie experience, the birth of the Little Tramp character and the Tramp look-alike contest. The very talented Ashley Brown (Broadway’s Mary Poppins) conveys a strong connection to McLure, while playing two roles in this production. She first appears as Charlie’s mom, Hannah Chaplin and woos the audience in the opening numbers “The Music Hall” and “Look at All the People.” Later in the show, she is the young and confident Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill), whom Chaplin married in 1943. Playing the young Charlie Chaplin is Jake Evan Schwenke (Broadway’s Billy Elliot) and LJ Benet (“You Again,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) is his older brother, Sydney. Matthew Scott (“Jersey Boys” on Broadway, “A Catered Affair”) is the grown-up version of Sydney. Another noteworthy performance is that of Jenn Colella (“Urban Cowboy” on Broadway, “The Times They Are A-Changin’ “) as actress-turned-gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper. Hopper was a big contributor to the fall and exile of Chaplin in the late 1940s, and Colella succeeds in interpreting her complex character for the stage. The rest of the cast includes Eddie Korbich as Karno, Brooke Sunny Moriber as Mildred, Ron Orbach as Sennett and McGranery, Roland Rusinek as Alf and a very talented ensemble.

“Limelight” is entertaining and ridden with stellar performances. It is both a biographical account and a psychological study of the man who changed motion pictures forever. And therein lies the rub: the quasi-systematic chronological unfolding of the story might distract audiences from sinking their teeth into the real meat, and the question “Who was the man Charlie Chaplin, not on or behind the camera, but deep inside in his head and heart?” is only partially answered. While witnessing the events that shaped his life remains fascinating, the substance lies in between the frames.

Patricia Humeau