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Charles Chaplin had an amazing first act—a rags-to-riches tale of artistic triumph—and a crummy second one—personal scandal, political exile, and after The Great Dictator, a string of mediocre talkies. Such extremes don’t apply to the spunky, hopeful biomusical Chaplin, but after we see the origin of those iconic silent comedies featuring a bowler-hatted, square-mustachioed clown, the material does shuffle downhill. However, when this generally well-executed and likable piece works (for its first hour), there’s a surprising rush of wonder, excitement and childlike delight.
Resourcefully staged by Warren Carlyle (Finian’s Rainbow) around an impeccably charming, graceful performance by Rob McClure, Chaplin opens with the Little Tramp navigating his way across a high wire (riffing on a sequence from 1928’s The Circus). The image is apt; just as Chaplin mastered a balance of technical virtuosity and heart-tugging melodrama, the creators intercut Chaplin’s late-Victorian childhood with his formation of the character that would propel him to astounding success—and eventually drive him to seek adulation and total control. But once they’ve established Chaplin’s genius, book writers Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis don’t have very far to go. The filmmaker falls out of favor, appoints himself a moral scold, flees to Switzerland and stews in bitterness. The 11th-hour male-diva rant “Where Are All the People?” is too little, too late, and the final drippy tribute turns mawkish. Curtis’s score, a jaunty weave of ragtime, jazz and old-time show tunes, is nice on the ear. But too much is left unexplored: Chaplin’s creative process, his political ideals, his creepy penchant for underage girls. Ultimately, Chaplin fails to present its hero, out of makeup and baggy pants, as a truly compelling subject. He completely changed the way we saw movies; but the rest is silents.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote