Charlie: Is Egypt’s Latest Musical Theatre Production Worth Your Time?

A snapshot from Charlie: The Musical. Photo credit: Charlie’s official Facebook page.

You may have seen the billboards and wondered. i know i did it A towering image of a group of people dressed in early 20th century western clothing, one of whom is said to resemble legendary British comedian and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. In the foreground in golden letters: Charlie.

Was that a movie? Its billboard hung high above a busy street, where advertisements for Egyptian blockbusters would normally be seen, but it was nowhere to be found on cinema schedules. It wasn’t until I saw an ad for it on social media that I realized this was actually a play – a musical production entitled “Charlie” that would run for one night at the Akran Theatre, Sheikh Zayed.

Having no clear idea of ​​what this production had to offer, I hadn’t planned to go there until invited by my family. With ticket prices ranging from EGP 450 ($15) for the nosebleed seats all the way up to EGP 2000 ($65), I would imagine many would not find it an affordable night out.

This was clearly not an independent production in a small, unassuming theatre. Though the stage was small, the theater’s presence in a trendy square in an affluent satellite neighborhood of Greater Cairo was significant. The screenplay and lyrics of the musical were also written by none other than Medhat El-Adl, a well-known, celebrated writer and member of the El-Adl family, whose name and media production company are a staple in Egypt’s entertainment industry.

I tried not to let any of this affect my expectations. After all, producing a musical is not an easy task, not to mention that not many musicals are produced in Egypt. The experience, resources and knowledge to create something truly outstanding are probably difficult to come by.

The musical’s social media pages have since announced that “Charlie” will be performed again at Teatro Arkan on March 3, in addition to future performances in Dubai, London and New York.

If you’re wondering whether it’s worth your time and money to snag a seat, maybe my experience will help you make a decision.

the performance

Dressed in jazz outfits and spat-like shoes, a group of dancers opened the show and ushered in four singers who performed the opening title: a song whose melody was clearly and deftly inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s iconic “Nonsense Song.” As I listened to the lyrics, which spoke affectionately of cinema and of Chaplin himself, I became suspicious of the singers, but decided to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

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The musical consisted almost entirely of musical numbers composed by Ihab Abdel-Wahed and performed by a troupe of around 15 to 20 dancers. It told the story of Charlie Chaplin’s life and set the music to four of his most important films – The Kid (1921). “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940) and “Limelight” (1952) – as groundbreaking milestones.

The troupe consisted of enthusiastic young Egyptians who performed Amr Patrick’s choreography simply but gracefully. Dressed in costumes ranging from shabby to flashy, expertly designed by Reem El-Adl, they made an aesthetically pleasing impression.

Not far into the show, the suspicions I mentioned about the singing were confirmed. All were lip sync. For me, that was the first big disappointment. While singing certainly wasn’t all that was enjoyed in this performance, the vast majority of the story was told through song. So one of the main elements of this live production was actually not live.

I chose to ignore this faux pas, but still enjoyed the soloists’ voices and their performances. Mohamed Fahim, who played Chaplin himself, had a melancholic voice and an outstanding ability to show emotion while dancing. Ayman El-Shiwi, who viciously portrayed J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Dalia El-Gendy, who scathingly portrayed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, both managed to combine humor and threat in their numbers.

The history

Storytelling is a delicate art, and any criticism of it will inevitably come down to personal taste and preference. However, it is a common belief that if a story is told too directly, too literally, there is little room for the audience to synthesize their own thoughts and feelings about it, or to form emotional connections with the characters.

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As a strong believer in this view, I found this to be another major weakness of the play. For me, too much of the story was told too directly and too literally, giving information about the characters instead of letting their personalities and experiences shine in a more subtle way.

Although she seemed to be a fan favorite, Hannah Chaplin, our main character’s mother, was the one in whose songs I stood out the most. She was a character whose tragic life of failed artistic endeavors, deep loneliness and likely addiction was meant to evoke strong feelings of empathy from audiences.

However, instead of subtly telling this story, the lyrics were too factually informative and carried their message too directly and explicitly. Feeding her story with the spoon brought me out of every possible emotional connection I could have developed with her, despite Nour Qadry’s soft voice and her almost guardian angelic attire and role in Chaplin’s life.

By the time the Entr’acte ended I had also found the reason why I felt the track lacked structure. It wasn’t entirely lacking in structure, but the flow of events felt a little uninspired to me. In fact, it was as if someone had taken the Wikipedia entry about Charlie Chaplin, distilled the most striking and important information from it, and turned it into a musical.

Nothing underscored this feeling more than the regular announcements made by a disembodied voice in the theater releasing statements like “In 1921, Charlie Chaplin’s film ‘The Kid’ gained equal popularity and acclaim.”

The takeaways

Despite these weaknesses, it was impossible not to tie in with the overall story of Chaplin’s life that ended up being encapsulated in the play. He was a genius who came out of nowhere and never allowed success, threats or tragedy to get in the way of his guiding principles.

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The choice of story was unexpected nonetheless. While Charlie Chaplin is quite an unforgettable icon and every effort is made to ensure he is never forgotten, he seems far removed from the cultural context of this production.

However, it seems no coincidence that the creators’ main focus was on Charlie Chaplin’s contribution to the political discourse of his time. Although apparently just a comedian, he was a champion of the poor and an advocate against oppression to the point of his own endangerment and persecution in the McCarthyist age.

The play did not shy away from the gravity of his decision not to let threats sway him from his message – a message that is timeless and transcends all boundaries.

So, do I recommend this musical or not? The answer is nuanced.

Given the paucity of offerings for such musical productions in Egypt, and probably the region, the bar is inevitably not very high. As a result, the dances were simple, storytelling was absent, and songs were not performed live. I can imagine that audiences elsewhere, particularly in the two centers of musical theater around the world – London and New York – will have trouble ignoring these weaknesses as I have.

However, there is no question that a lot of passion and dedication went into “Charlie’s” creation. The group of creatives that put their heads together and created this production waded into the unknown and came up with something that is difficult if not impossible to find in Egypt.

Finally, I find that celebrating the success of a local production – unless it’s glaringly bad, which it wasn’t – is sometimes an end in itself, as it’s likely to encourage more such creative endeavors and gradually accustom Egyptian audiences to more variety of forms The entertainment.

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