The live action in “Chaplin: The Musical” begins with Charlie on a tightrope high above a soundstage.
Below him, a crowd sings “Whatcha gonna do when it all falls down?”
Subtle, it’s not.
Chaplin’s tale is the stuff of Dickensian melodrama. It begins in childhood poverty and London “variety” shows, moves to silent-film stardom in Hollywood, marriages to several very young women and exile in Switzerland. It concludes -- need I say “spoiler alert?” -- with his triumphant return to the Academy Awards in 1972.
That’s also the stuff of this leaden Broadway musical. It isn’t engaging musically and, worse, it isn’t funny.
The characters include the abandoned mother whose mental disintegration shadows the lives of Charlie and his loyal brother, Syd. And, of course, the love of his life, Oona O’Neill, who becomes at 18 his fourth wife, accepting disinheritance from her playwright father as the cost of marrying a man the same age (54) as Eugene.
Recreating the Little Tramp is a dream role for the gifted clown who can suggest pain and loneliness beneath the baggy pants and twitchy toothbrush mustache. He was a mime who finally found his voice with the courageous anti-Hitlerist satire, “The Great Dictator.”
Robert Downey Jr. won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal in Richard Attenborough’s picturesque but uninspired 1992 film biography.
Much the same can be said for “Chaplin.” Rob McClure nails the penguin walk, rolled derby, flexible cane and rubber limbs that made Chaplin funny just standing still. But the show never catches fire.
There’s a nice scene early on, after Charlie has arrived in Hollywood to become a member of Mack Sennett’s “Keystone” company. It’s the moment when inspiration strikes as the scared young immigrant assembles the elements that will transform him into the Little Tramp. Sennett (Michael McCormick) barks, “Do that walk again!”
But “Chaplin” -- whose derivative songs are by Christopher Curtis, the inert book by Curtis and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan -- has little else to recommend it. Curtis’s talents do not include pastiche; you’d never know the period here extends from pre-WWI to the 1970s. Nor would you get any understanding of the crucial role that silence plays in silent movies.
On the other hand, you’ll probably recognize some heavy-handed nods to “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Chorus Line.”
The monochrome sets (Beowulf Boritt) and costumes (Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz) have an Art Nouveau elegance that’s strikingly illuminated by Ken Billington. But the director/choreographer Warren Carlyle never electrifies a show that keeps dragging poor batty Mom (Christiane Noll) out from the wings as a nagging reproof to Charlie’s success.
The show’s villain (unlike the film’s), is the Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella, convincingly petty and vindictive), inflamed by Charlie’s refusal to give her an interview. Oona is played touchingly by Erin Mackey; Wayne Alan Wilcox is also sympathetic as Syd.
Act I closes with a chorus line of Tramp impersonators -- tall, short, fat, skinny -- as Charlie looks on. It’s a bad omen. Like Elvises in Vegas, they’re all good for a laugh. None gives us the man. It’s an unsingular sensation.
At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: *1/2
The setting of Athol Fugard’s “The Train Driver,” at the Signature Theatre, is a potter’s field that looks like a junkyard.
The nameless poor “sleeping,” as the black gravedigger Simon Hanabe calls it, might have a hubcap for a headstone, or some other castoff detritus marking their unclaimed remains in this arid oblivion outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa.
Into this Twilight Zone setting comes Roelf Visagie, an Afrikaaner undone by a woman who recently threw herself and her baby in front of his commuter train as he watched, helpless to avert the suicide. He’s come, he explains to Simon, not to pay his respects, but to curse the woman for ruining his life.
The two men will form an unlikely bond and teach one another different lessons in forgiveness before the play’s 90 minutes have passed. They are, in their irreconcilable life experiences, both witnesses to nearly unfathomable despair.
The performances by Leon Addison Brown and Ritchie Coster, under the playwright’s meticulous direction, more than compensate for a certain amount of redundancy and even predictableness in the text.
Brown’s Simon is scared by Roelf’s intrusion; the vibes are bad and you can see fear written on his weathered face. Coster’s Roelf is undeterred, certain he has found the right place and even more certain he’ll find redemption there. His eyes are wild with bitterness, but not for long. Both men are right; both will suffer the consequences of their prescience.
Through Sept. 23 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Rating: ***1/2
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include movies and books.