Max J. Swarner as Charlie Chaplin in WaterTower Theatre’s CHAPLIN the Musical. (Photo by Paris Marie Productions)

WaterTower’s new season gives focus to leading characters such as Ann Richards, Louis Armstrong and even Mary Poppins. WTT opened the season with CHAPLIN the Musical about screen legend Charlie Chaplin. But what the cast and crew really did was shine with a production that delivered both joy and drama with a tour de force performance by its leading man Max J. Swarner.

Directed by WTT Artistic Director Shane Peterman, CHAPLIN, based on the actor/director’s real life story, was layered with complex and potent drama amid vibrant and emotional showtunes by writers Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan with music led by Vonda K. Bowling and outstanding choreography by Ann Nieman. Through it all, we see how his mother Hannah (Lauren Mikael Wever) and big brother Sydney (Duke Anderson) help Charlie Chaplin (Swarner) rise to fame and then later his meeting and longtime marriage to Oona O’Neill (Kylie Stewart).  

The strong ensemble cast as a whole hit every note with stunning flair. As the famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Laura Lites was every bit the busybody trying to get a bite but her conniving side was so sinister. Stewart brought a lovely element with Oona to the show. She balanced Swarner’s gusto with heart and strength underlined by an exquisite softness. 

Brian Gonzales was a pleasure to watch as studio head and director Mack Sennett . His role of mentoring Chaplin was personable and warm with smart touches of comedy. 

The ensemble and supporting cast were nothing to sleep on. Each was serving varying levels of greatness. 

Blake Henri was magnetic as the vaudevillian Mr. Karno. Spencer Laboda brought distinguished vibes to his Douglas Fairbanks. Jude Laine Lewis was always a delight in a variety of their roles throughout the show. Emery Gray as Chaplin’s first wife Mildred was sparkling as well which made the character all the more devastating. 

Playing Young Charlie in Saturday’s matinee was Allison Arroyo in a mature deliverance.

For Hannah, Chaplin’s mother and somewhat failed performer, Weber gave a beautifully strong and sympathetic showing. She was vibrant, loving and matriarchal to the young Chaplin brothers. As the older version with dementia, Weber’s demeanor turned into something a bit harder and appropriately distant. The transformation was exceptional. 

In the older brother role, Duke Anderson gave a winning performance as essentially the show’s straight man. Unpretentious and direct, Anderson anchored the show’s emotions but still was arresting as the protective older brother.

But the show belonged wholly to Swarner who delivered an epic performance as the movie icon.

Firstly, the role required Swarner to deliver on all talents: singing, dancing, physical comedy, romantic, comic and dramatic acting. Plus, he had to play a very familiar legend. He had the Chaplin-isms down right without going too far into caricature. Swarner’s Chaplin was certainly his own without compromising the icon’s signature style. But Swarner shined every moment he was onstage with erudite acting that radiated depth and complexity. In short, he was mindblowing. 

The cast certainly leveled up, but the story was still riveting and Peterman directed the show with a pacing that gave the audience time to embrace and invest in the characters. Never did the show lag or stretch. Bowling’s second-story orchestra off the stage filled the space with lush music and also brought its own energy to the show. 

CHAPLIN the Musical wasn’t just theater, it was a spectacular experience to launch WaterTower’s new season. The show runs through Sunday.