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Limelight: The Story Of Charlie Chaplin Review by Arts & Culture Editor Darlene G. Davies


Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin at La Jolla Playhouse is a powerful production about an iconic figure. Consider the challenge: a musical about a silent film actor whose personal torment fueled his creative life. His accomplishments added to a towering 20th century cultural legacy, during a period of history marked by great highs and lows. Chaplin’s memorable character of the Little Tramp spoke silently to masses of audiences throughout the world and, judging from La Jolla Playhouse crowd reaction, the Tramp still appeals to contemporary audiences. Chaplin’s Tramp was everyman tossed about, struggling to maintain some kind of dignity in all kinds of undignified circumstances. The posturing was ludicrous and so human. His humor and sweet pathos touched millions of silent movie viewers. He became a greatly loved figure in America before becoming a much-reviled man who lived in exile for the last period of his life. The genius did it all to himself.


A searing fear of abandonment permeated the gifted performer’s deepest psyche, causing him to sabotage the momentum of his career. Reared in poverty and sent to a workhouse as a young boy, following his mother’s confinement to an insane asylum in England, fear of separation from his mother stayed with him all his life and led him to pursue relationships that repeatedly turned sour. Though he achieved iconic artistic status in America, becoming a very rich man along the way, his affairs with extremely young women and his idealistic political pursuits eventually made him persona non grata in the United States.


Through three marriages and countless sexual liaisons, Chaplin doggedly pursued his ideologies while he carried a festering longing to restore his mother to sanity. That obsession was presumably (maybe not) stilled with his fourth and final marriage to18-year-old Oona O’Neill (Chaplin was 54 at the time), the daughter of the towering 20th century dramatist Eugene O’Neill. That marriage ruptured the relationship between father and daughter. The O’Neills never reconciled.


Limelight melds music with major universal themes. The performances are first rate, starting with a perfectly cast Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin. The signature moment when McClure as Chaplin morphs into the Tramp onstage is astonishing and, by itself, worth a visit to the Playhouse. That transformation reveals McClure to be an “actor’s actor” worthy of study by all aspiring performers. Matthew Scott as Charlie’s protective brother Sydney gives a warm and assuring performance, and Jenn Colella blasts the hall with a brassy take on acidic columnist Hedda Hopper. Ashley Brown physically suits the part of Oona, but is most appealing in the double role of Charlie’s mother, Hannah, in earlier scenes. Most of the vocalists effectively deliver music and lyrics of Christopher Curtis. Credit Warren Carlyle with lively choreography. Sets and costumes are fine, evoking a sense of the period. As usual, the crafts people are exceptional.


This show is definitely Broadway worthy. With a little tweaking, it will fly even higher. In fact, it will soar.   DARLENE G. DAVIES


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