NEW YORK -- There are surely few harder-working men in show business right now than Rob McClure, the immensely likeable star of the new Broadway musical Chaplin (**½ out of four).
In the title role, that of film legend Charlie Chaplin, McClure begins the show literally walking a high wire. For more than two hours, he is the dominant figure onstage, aging from a teenager to an octogenarian while alternately channeling his character's unique genius for physical comedy and singing his guts out.
As if that's not enough, Chaplin's leading man must also traverse a book, by veteran librettist Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Annie, Hairspray) and Christopher Curtis, with enough mawkish melodrama to fuel a dozen silent-film parodies.
It's this last aspect that ultimately sinks what might have been an exciting new work, and still manages to be, in substantial chunks, an entertaining one. Curtis, who also wrote the music and lyrics, and Meehan make an earnest attempt to get inside the head and heart of their subject, even using the tools of his trade: Chaplin's life unfolds in a series of emulated film takes, and the action is enhanced at points by archival clips.
But even while trumpeting Chaplin's accomplishments, the musical, which opened Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, reduces one of the most distinctive talents of the 20th century to a sentimental figure largely defined by his relationships with women. Chaplin's unstable mother, Hannah, is a major presence. Played by a sad-eyed Christiane Noll, she haunts her son repeatedly, sometimes accompanied by a little boy - Chaplin as a lad, sweetly played by Zachary Unger.
Then there are Chaplin's first three wives, all actresses. The first, Mildred Harris, is portrayed by Hayley Podschun as a calculating Lolita. The latter two don't fare much better in a sequence that has them pounding him in a boxing ring, then dancing around with moneybags representing their generous divorce settlements.
Once he finally finds happiness with the pure-hearted Oona O'Neill - played by the winsome Erin Mackey, whose limpid soprano is a musical highlight of the production - Chaplin must still contend with Hedda Hopper, who resents his progressive politics and reluctance to play the Hollywood publicity game. Jenn Colella presents the über-gossip columnist all too capably as a cartoon villainess.
Luckily, there are moments of levity and more direct nods to Chaplin's artistic inspiration, and director/choreographer Warren Christopher serves both with a deft mix of passion and playfulness. In The Look-a-Like Contest, the number closing Act One, McClure's Chaplin watches, fascinated and a bit terrified, as a chorus line of dancers dressed like him ape the clownish movements he has managed with such agility and charm.
It's a delightful routine - and a sobering one, when you consider how celebrity obsession has mushroomed in our era. One only wishes that Chaplin would achieve that balance of wit and unforced poignance more often.