By Diana Saenger
The moment the screen showing a silent Chaplin film parts and actor Rob McClure steps through it, "Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin" at the La Jolla Playhouse comes to life and never lags for an instant.
Chaplin appears onstage as an old man looking back on the highlights of his extraordinary career. As Young Charlie (Jake Evan Schwenke) and his mother (Ashley Brown) perform a song and dance routine for Fred Karno's music company in London, the older Chaplin walks among them. Delight dances in his eyes at the memories of the joy he brought to others.
Karno's advice that Chaplin learn to appear "wistful," and his mother's challenge that he "try to find the story in people's eyes," pave the road for Chaplin's life — first in vaudeville and then in movies.
When Chaplin gets an invite from Mack Sennett (Rob Orbach) and his Keystone Film Company to come to Hollywood, his excitement is unrestrained. Chaplin wants his brother/partner Sydney (Matthew Scott) to come with him, but Syd refuses insisting that someone must take care of their mentally ill mother. It's not until years later when Chaplin's character The Little Tramp has propelled him to success, that Syd arrives in America and becomes his manager. Scott ("Jersey Boys") does a solid job of watching Charlie's back no matter what.
The marvelous book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan is sustained by Curtis' music and lyrics, choreography by Warren Carlyle, and direction by Carlyle and Michael Unger.
The story unfolds through the clever use of film clips and several vaudeville stage and scene changes that include everything from Hollywood movie sets to night clubs to poverty row streets and dwellings.
Costume designer Linda Cho, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and lighting designer Paul Gallo pulled out all the stops to ensure every second of the play transports the audience to that exact moment in time, thoroughly enjoying the journey.
The 23 cast members obviously put in a lot of hard work to sing, dance and react to Chaplin's vaudeville antics. Jenn Colella is a standout as Hedda Hopper, a girl who was embarrassingly dismissed when she auditioned for Chaplin's movies and held such a grudge against him that she was partly responsible for his being exiled from America as a communist.
It's in the scenes of Chaplin's move into political arenas and his research for his film "The Great Dictator," that McClure gets the loudest of his many laughs — especially when he is Chaplin adding his own dialogue to a silent documentary of Adolph Hitler wildly gesturing and pontificating to the masses. In his rousing portrayal of Chaplin, McClure has tried to look into the eyes of the comic genius and find his own story. '"Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin" entertains so well it may be the best play of the year.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"Amazing production and performances."
— Stephanie Mertes
"Wonderful. Songs catchy; script emotionally moving; I learned a lot about Chaplin."
— Joe Meehan
"Fantastic! Worth seeing on a school night!"
— Daima Austin
"I'm the composer's brother so I've seen the show evolve in the last 10 years; this was the strongest, tightest production. Wow."
— Alan Curtis
IF YOU GO
- What: 'Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin'
- When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 17
- Where: La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre
- Tickets: $44-$80; (858) 550-1010; www.lajollaplayhouse.org