Because Chaplin was so exponentially bigger than life, there’s a lot to cover between the lines—but the beauty of this good play is that it keeps its head in spite of the wildly divergent scenes and frenetic pace. The dialogue’s simplistic, and you won’t leave the theater singing the lyrics. But you will enjoy the wholly uncomplicated account of one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic figures, featuring Paul Gallo’s spot-on light design and Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger’s lean, efficient direction.
Chaplin hit the ground running after his birth in 1889, first performing at age 8 as a singer with Hannah, his mom. The latter was toying with a music-hall comeback, but her inescapable poverty soon left Charlie and his brother Sydney to fend for themselves against London’s mean-spirited workhouse machine. Almost in spite of itself, Chaplin’s life exploded with his arrival in the U.S. in 1910—and there’s plenty of understory here to show us just how.
Thomas Meehan (Hairspray, The Producers) and Christopher Curtis have written red-blooded supporting characters with lives of their own, from the nononsense, barrel-chested silent-film producer Mack Sennett (Ron Orbach), Chaplin’s first American employer; Chaplin’s gold-digging first wife Mildred (Brooke Sunny Moriber); and Chaplin’s sometimes tempestuous relationship with Sydney (Matthew Scott), whom Charlie once fired as his business manager in an ill-advised show of bravado.
The Little Tramp’s trademark toothbrush mustache, weather-beaten satchel and bowlegged gait suit actor Rob McClure to a T, as do the brassy vocals of Jenn Colella’s Hedda Hopper, the pesky, famed reporter who denounced Chaplin as a communist. All the while, Curtis’ austere music and lyrics patiently illustrate the full-throated story, dogged in their patron-friendliness and an integral part of one of the Playhouse’s better world premieres.
This review is based on the performance of Sept. 21. Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin runs through Oct. 17 at The Mandell Weiss Theatre in La Jolla. $51-$80. lajollaplayhouse.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.