Sept. 29 2010 10:32 AM

La Jolla Playhouse's Limelight tells enigmatic Charlie Chaplin's story in uncomplicated style

Charlie Chaplin (Rob McClure) plays leading man to yet another off-screen bimbo (Kirsten Scott).
There's a scene in La Jolla Playhouse's current musical bioplay Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin in which the silent-film titan chides Adolph Hitler on the way to producing The Great Dictator, Chaplin's 1940 landmark anti-Nazi talkie. It's a hilarious moment and a classic nod to Chaplin's almost obsessive opposition to der Fhrer's murky politics. The scene is sandwiched between some reenactments of young Chaplin's not-so-funny days in a workhouse in his native London following his mom's mental collapse; his rise to fame on the back of The Little Tramp, his signature character; his legendary womanizing and suspected communist ties later in life; and, finally, his deep sadness over several theaters having passed over Limelight, his 1952 comedy-drama. He was under McCarthyism's microscope at the time, and Hollywood was throwing several of its hotter properties under the bus.

Because Chaplin was so exponentially bigger than life, there's a lot to cover between the lines—but the beauty of this good play is that it keeps its head in spite of the wildly divergent scenes and frenetic pace. The dialogue's simplistic, and you won't leave the theater singing the lyrics. But you will enjoy the wholly uncomplicated account of one of Hollywood's most enigmatic figures, featuring Paul Gallo's spot-on light design and Warren Carlyle and Michael Unger's lean, efficient direction.

Chaplin hit the ground running after his birth in 1889, first performing at age 8 as a singer with Hannah, his mom. The latter was toying with a music-hall comeback, but her inescapable poverty soon left Charlie and his brother Sydney to fend for themselves against London's mean-spirited workhouse machine. Almost in spite of itself, Chaplin's life exploded with his arrival in the U.S. in 1910—and there's plenty of understory here to show us just how.

Thomas Meehan (Hairspray, The Producers) and Christopher Curtis have written red-blooded supporting characters with lives of their own, from the nononsense, barrel-chested silent-film producer Mack Sennett (Ron Orbach), Chaplin's first American employer; Chaplin's gold-digging first wife Mildred (Brooke Sunny Moriber); and Chaplin's sometimes tempestuous relationship with Sydney (Matthew Scott), whom Charlie once fired as his business manager in an ill-advised show of bravado.

The Little Tramp's trademark toothbrush mustache, weather-beaten satchel and bowlegged gait suit actor Rob McClure to a T, as do the brassy vocals of Jenn Colella's Hedda Hopper, the pesky, famed reporter who denounced Chaplin as a communist. All the while, Curtis' austere music and lyrics patiently illustrate the full-throated story, dogged in their patron-friendliness and an integral part of one of the Playhouse's better world premieres.

This review is based on the performance of Sept. 21. Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin runs through Oct. 17 at The Mandell Weiss Theatre in La Jolla. $51-$80. Write to and


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