His amazing performance is right up there with other indelible Playhouse portrayals, such as Jefferson Mays as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in “I Am My Own Wife” and Sutton Foster in the title role of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Mays and Foster received Tony Awards for these roles.
With music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis, book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan, and direction by Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger, “Limelight” engenders an enthusiastic response similar to that experienced at the openings of “Jersey Boys” and “Memphis,” both of which proceeded to Broadway from the Playhouse and copped numerous Tony Awards.
Though Curtis score suffers slightly for lack of a baritone (both Charlie and his brother Sydney are tenors), the music is tuneful and two production numbers, “Tramp Shuffle” and “This Man” are knockouts, the former featuring the entire ensemble in a Chaplin look-alike contest that includes dance, movement and song. “This Man” is a veritable valedictory on the importance of Chaplin to the cinema.
Thanks to Alexander Dodge’s facile scenic design and Zachary Borovay’s projection design, the musical sweeps the audience rapidly through Chaplin’s life, from impoverished childhood in London through his and Sydney’s early vaudeville days to America, where Charlie was invited to join Mack Sennett’s Keystone Films. We meet Hannah, the boys’ mentally-fragile mother (vocally luminous Ashley Brown); vaudeville impresario Karno (Eddie Korbich), who gave him his first break; Sennett (Ron Orbach); a few of Charlie’s young brides; and his nemesis, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jen Colella). That Brown also portrays Oona O’Neill, Chaplin’s final and longtime wife, may be taken to mean that the child in the man found his mother and lasting love even though he was ousted by his adopted country during the House Un-American Hearings.
Jake Evan Schwenke and LJ Benet portray the boys as children and they are both accomplished and natural simultaneously. Also a grand singer, as is McClure, Matthew Scott is most effective as Sydney, the more grounded and serious brother. Curtis provides songs that advance the plot nicely, including Hannah’s “Look at All the People,” Charlie’s “The Life that You Wished For,” and Hopper’s “When It All Falls Down.” Oona and Charlie’s final duet, “What Only Love Can See,” is lovely and the composer provides contrasting musical styles even though he seems to prefer high voices.
The directors smoothly stage the large, 22 person company. Linda Cho’s costumes span the years admirably, with Charlie’s extemporaneous creation of the Tramp, seemingly from thin air, a magical moment indeed. The final image is such that it will be stored in that compartment reserved for one’s theatrical treasures. Paul Gallo’s lighting and Jon Weston’s sound enhance the production, along with Douglas Besterman’s orchestrations and Bryan Perri’s musical direction and vocal arranging. Excellent musical support comes via a nine-piece orchestra.
“Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin” continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays through Oct. 17, at Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, www.lajollaplayhouse.org or (858) 550-1010.