Little Tramp comes up short despite great cast

There’s nothing the matter with this musical version of a great artist’s life that a more insightful script couldn’t cure.

August 25, 2019 21:22
2 minute read.
Little Tramp comes up short despite great cast

'Chaplin' . (photo credit: VLADIMIR BARENBOIM)

By Christopher Curtis
and Thomas Meehan
Translated by Dani Lashman
Directed by Shuki Wagner

Tel Aviv Theater in collaboration with Haifa Theater, August 21

There’s nothing the matter with this musical version of a great artist’s life that a more insightful script couldn’t cure. As it is, this Chaplin is technically a very good (costumes, set and lighting), intelligently executed, one-dimensional reduction of Chaplin’s life and influence on the art of cinema that talks to its audience in words of one syllable – as it were.

The performers in this Chaplin are not to blame for the deficiencies in the script, which takes us from the Little Tramp’s beginnings as a childhood vaudeville artist in London, through his meteoric rise to fame, his enthronement as a Hollywood icon, his divorces, his fall from grace, his banishment from the US, and his eventual reinstatement via an honorary 1972 Oscar (in a cloyingly sentimental scene) years later.

Everything stays on the surface, because that’s the way it’s written. It’s only twice that we get to see real feeling, as when Charlie visits his deranged mother, Hannah (Dafna Dekel) and (utterly self-obsessed) sings to her “The Life that You Wished For,” a song about the fulfillment of her dreams for him, but she has left before he ends the song. The second time is “What Only Love Can See,” the duet he sings with his fourth and final wife, Oona O’Neill, in which love replaces ego.

That said, we can expect a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theater because the performers give it their all. As the mercurial, driven Chaplin, Ofri Biterman has a vocal and physical versatility and presence that enliven and inspire what comes off the page as a cardboard cutout. His Chaplin becomes a genuine human being. This is true also of Dekel, whose Hannah moves touchingly from vibrant performer and loving mother to empty husk; and of Meytal Notik, whose Oona moves surely from innocence to maturity. She also has a beautiful – if only one could hear it in its natural state – voice.

Tali Oren and Micki Kamm share the role of Hedda Hopper. This was Oren’s night, and when she arrived on stage as Hedda Hopper, Chaplin’s nemesis (he dared to ignore her) and Hollywood Superpower Supreme, Chaplin took off like a rocket. Oren’s Hopper is marvelously monstrous, gloriously vindictive, superbly spiteful and ineffably over-inflated. She’s perfect!

A bit of history: Hopper was a gossip columnist as was her rival, Louella Parsons. Their columns could, and did, make or break careers, and Hollywood was terrified of them.

Producer Mack Sennett (Why does the Hebrew make his name into one word?) is another Hollywood icon – most notably founder of silent movie slapstick such as the Keystone Cops – and discoverer of Chaplin, among the rest. Unhappily, Avi Greinik’s portrayal of Sennett is lackluster, almost a caricature of a silent movie itself.

Yaron Brubinski does a believable and sterling job as Chaplin’s elder brother, Sid, as do the young actors playing Charlie as a boy and the young Jackie Coogan.

But Chaplin is so grossly over-amplified that genuine listening is impossible, and since a musical is about music and songs, this inevitably detracts from the evening’s enjoyment.

And that’s not the way to treat a job well do

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