The La Jolla Playhouse continues to produce new musicals that presumably will get to Broadway. The most successful to date is Jersey Boys, which remains an international success. Another example is Memphis which, after extensive touring, went to Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical.
Big River, The Who’s Tommy, Thoroughly Modern Millie, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and plays like Walk in The Woods, 700 Sundays, Dracula, and I am My Own Wife went on to New York and in some cases Tony Awards.
I looked forward to their latest endeavor, Limelight, a personal look at Charlie Chaplin’s quest for acceptance and unconditional love. Another musical Chaplin with Anthony Newley had been tried years earlier, but was little more than a retelling of Chaplin’s story. Limelight is much more personal.
Limelight succeeds but only up to a point. In order to set the stage, the musical begins with Chaplin being taken away from his mother, who eventually ended up in mental asylums for the rest of her days. After escaping from a workhouse, Charlie and his brother end up working in vaudeville, building on the routines his sainted mother had taught him.
The musical shows his discovery by Mack Sennett, and his rise to being the most famous man alive. This is followed by his many marriages, mistresses, and finally with his satisfying marriage to Oona O’Neill, Eugene O’Neill’s daughter. We also witness his destruction by Hedda Hopper, whom he had snubbed. With the help of the Federal Government, Chaplin lost all favor with the public, his films were not allowed to be shown (his movie Limelight was one), and he left for Europe, only to return to accept an Honorary Oscar for his life’s work.
Christopher Curtis, who also was the composer and lyricist, wrote the musical, with Thomas Meeham. They said that the musical was about rescue and Chaplin’s resurrection through the love of a good woman.
Still, much of the musical does seem an all-too-rapid glimpse into Chaplin’s life story. What is terrific about the show is the music, which has a rather old-style Broadway sound, and the wonderful choreography by director Warren Carlyle.
Add to this the totally brilliant portrayal by actor Robert McClure as Charlie. He is ably assisted by Ashley Brown as Oona, Jenn Colella as Hedda Hopper, Brooke Sunny Moriber as the first wife, and ensemble member Jessica Reiner Harris in various comic turns.
I think the musical needs to expand its scope to include the insanity that inhabited America in the days of HUAC and McCarthy. America was responsible for Chaplin’s exile, not just the bitterness of one woman, Hedda Hopper.
Towards the end of the musical Charles is given a song where he bewails the fact that he is unloved. Though a nice song, it makes him a complainer instead of a hero. His betrayal and loneliness are obvious from the story.
This is the first go-round for Limelight and I am sure things will change and develop as it continues its journey to Broadway. As it is it is a delightful show with a new star on his way to a Tony. Limelight will play at the La Jolla Playhouse until Oct 17th.