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Rob McClure shines in lopsided 'Chaplin'

Zachary Unger as young Charlie Chaplain and Rob

Zachary Unger as young Charlie Chaplain and Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplain in "Chaplin the Musical," at the Barrymore Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

There is an odd but altogether deserved billing in the program for "Chaplin," the new biographical musical about the silent movie icon. Instead of merely printing the name of the show's lead actor, the copy proclaims: "Introducing Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin."

Well, hello, Rob McClure. Welcome to the show that's going to make you a Broadway star. It's hard to guess how long the musical -- with its excellent stagecraft, but a badly lopsided book and a banal score -- will be around. Whatever the problems of the material, however, this is a performance that lasts.

McClure, who has mostly had replacement and understudy jobs, doesn't just replicate the waddle and pratfalls of Chaplin's little tramp. He doesn't just do a back somersault without spilling a glass of wine or tap dance on roller skates or walk a tightrope. He does all that without apparent effort, but he also has a pungent voice that pings and he embodies more than seven decades of Chaplin's life with a focused, altogether believable mix of gravity and light.

What the creators want us to know about Chaplin is far less clear. The conflicted book, co-written by Thomas Meehan and composer/lyricist Christopher Curtis, moves briskly but redundantly from British music hall to movie magic and Chaplin's less admirable love affairs.

Except for foreshadowing by a song nagging "whatcha gonna do when it all falls down?" the plot has no tension or arc and gives no hint that, way too late into the second act, the musical-comedy turns dark with blacklisting and exile. It is then that Curtis' songs, simple tunes with nursery-rhyme lyrics, get heavy with love-song twaddle and musical swatches of "Cabaret" and "A Chorus Line."

The rest of the big cast is very fine, especially Zachary Unger as Charlie in his Dickensian boyhood and Christiane Noll as the young mother whose madness and perceptiveness haunt Charlie's life in deftly-wrought flashbacks.

Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle moves the story from late 19th century British music hall through to early Hollywood with remarkable integration of live and film images. And the whole production, with nonstop changes of stylish costumes, finds impressive shadings in black and white -- with just a recurring red rose.

McClure does the rest.

WHAT "Chaplin"

WHERE Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

INFO $66.50-$135.50; 212-239-6200; chaplinbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Terrific Charlie, lopsided show

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