The Young Charlie Chaplin Fades Out Of Monochrome

La Jolla Playhouse can’t get enough of the Chaplins. After the whimsical performance of Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter in last season’s “Aurelia’s Oratorio,” the Tramp himself gets a livelier close-up in the Playhouse’s latest production,  “Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin.” And no, the irony of the silent film star retelling his story in piano chords is not lost on anyone. By the end of all the musical’s overdrawn clichés, though, the delightfully twisted vantage point seems uninspired.

Under the direction of Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger, “Limelight” adds flashy color to the life of a film legend usually relegated to reels of black and white. The musical traverses largely unchartered territory in Chaplin’s life, from his orphan days in the late 1800s to his debauchery in Hollywood’s Golden Age, followed by his downfall at the hands of McCarthyism. Sadly, so faithful is the production to the cause of a biography that it often forfeits coherence in plot.

The first scene opens with a hapless Chaplin (William Youmans) sitting in a barren theater at the premiere of his latest film. Nostalgic for his earlier successes, Chaplin asks for his first one-reeler to be projected onto the screen. Thus begins “Limelight’s” frame narrative, as out from the screen emerges a cast of lower-class Londoners, including young Charlie (Jake Evan Schwenke).

Young Charlie first learns pantomime under his mother’s (Ashley Brown) guidance. “Once you find the story behind each [person],” she instructs him in song, “then you just play the part.” But Charlie’s family ties are soon reduced to shambles when Hannah is declared insane and the mutton-chopped owner of an orphanage steals Charlie and his brother Sid away from her.

The brothers live off filching until their slapstick means of robbery catch the attention of music hall owner Fred Karno  (Eddie Korbich). From there, Charlie (now played by the older Rob McClure) gets recruited to American silent film. He takes a leap of faith across the pond, only to be met by the capitalist tendencies of Hollywood directors who forgo things like “character” and “rehearsals” for the idiosyncrasies that made him the big bucks.  From this downtrodden onset is born the iconic Tramp: the moustache, bowler hat, baggy pants and handicapped walk. “Look how I’ve changed my story,” he tells the audience, in awe of his own fame.

In spite of the upbeat numbers and vaudeville throwback, “Limelight” remains predominantly doleful in tone. One of the most amusing (and too infrequent) scenes features Charlie lampooning Hitler in his first talkie, “The Great Dictator,” where he attunes “I’m a Little Teapot” to the gesticulations and acrid tone of Hitler in a dead-on voiceover. But there’s not enough goof, not enough guffaw.

Though it breaks new ground in its retelling of Chaplin’s life, “Limelight” ultimately finds itself to be a schmaltzy musical. It’s rife with morals that rival the likes of Forrest Gump. Take, for example, Charlie’s epiphany in the final scene: “Life isn’t a movie. You can’t go back and edit it.” Profound.

The songs, composed by Christopher Curtis, are catchy on first listen but easily forgettable. Some duets have the actors singing simultaneously over one another in a way that neither set of lyrics are clear.

“Limelight” is buttressed by the talent of its supporting actors. Matthew Scott’s Sid, in particular, is compassionate as an older brother should be, without becoming trite. But “Limelight” serves as a reminder that flapper pizzazz and reverberant tunes alone can’t account for a good musical. As with the silent films of Chaplin’s time, sometimes black and white is just fine. (C+)

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