Encore Michigan

Encore starts the road for Lon Chaney musical

Review May 01, 2022 David Kiley

DEXTER, Mich.–Lon Chaney was a transformative actor and make-up artist in Hollywood during the years leading up to World-War 1, the war years and the Roaring 20s. Today, with many of his films lost to fires and disintegration of the old celluloid, he is mostly known to us as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of The Opera.” Indeed, his make-up design for himself for the Phantom is an icon of monster masks and Halloween even today.

The Encore Musical Theatre here partnered with TLS Ventures and Lon Chaney’s great grandson Ron Chaney to produce: A Thousand Faces–The Lon Chaney Musical. The hope is that after this initial workshopping, the show could find a road to Broadway or a national tour. It just might, too, after the producers have time to iron out the shows short-comings and issues to make it more accessible and enjoyable for a wide public. The good news is that we can see the potential. It’s a good show, but one that needs to improve to fulfill its potential.

Lon Chaney (Danny Gardner) was born to deaf parents (Camille Jeter and Robert Schleifer), which made his upbringing challenging, emotional, sometimes isolated. An opening of the show that transitions from his Hunchback role to his childhood is very well conceived, though could use some smoothing out. It also helps establish who Chaney was for audience members who are sadly not in the know. After all, Chaney died in 1930. From, there, we are taken through Chaney’s early life at great speed to where he is a young man working as a stage manager. He meets his wife Cleva (Hope Elizabeth Schafer), a troubled singer and alcoholic. Then comes the birth of his son, Creighton (Vaan Otto as young Creighton and Evan Smith as older Creighton) , who will follow in his father’s footsteps as an actor as Lon Chaney Jr.–originator of The Wolfman role.

Chaney’s story was told in the 1957 film, “Man of A Thousand Faces,” a pretty fair film starring James Cagney in the title role. Turning the story into a musical with 18 songs means something has to give in terms of telling the story without it becoming staggeringly long. Where the book, by Eric Lane, needs to find itself as the show goes forward is in trimming or cutting some episodes in Chaney’s life that either go by too quickly or linger too long. There is a story thread of Chaney’s time with a vaudeville team that seems to hang around too long. And powerful moments are given incredibly short shrift like when Cleva decides she is leaving Lon and Creighton, and Lon breaks the news to the boy. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Chaney, a single father, had no choice but to work constantly in all the extra roles he could land, while he had to ship Creighton off to a boarding school for boys. It was at this time that he built his reputation for transforming himself into anything casting directors were looking for during the “extra” cattle calls–a native American, a Chinese laborer, a cowboy, even an old woman. No actor was doing such advanced, transformative make-up before Chaney. His big break came when he was cast as a deformed man in “Miracle Man,” and impressed his director with his ability to contort his body before unfolding it in a moment of healing. This episode is nicely played out in the story.

There is an under-current in the play of rushing to get everything in, plus all the songs. It’s a lot to tackle in a two-hour show, including an intermission, with all those songs. And some of the drawn out life episodes are clearly done that way in service to the songs. But unless you know Chaney’s story and have seen the Cagney film, you can be left with a “Wait. What just happened?” syndrome. This can happen when the creators are so familiar with the story and the source material that they think everyone knows it as well as they do.

The score and orchestrations are very lush and up to par, though a new song that stays in your head a bit may be in order as the project moves ahead. The whole production, which is very promising, needs a trip to the writing room to be thinned out, maybe some musical numbers cut, with a bigger emphasis on telling Chaney’s story more deliberately so the arc of his story is not missed. Even at the end, when Chaney’s fatal illness creeps up on him, and he leaves the stage, replaced by Creighton as Lon Chaney Jr., happens in such a way that we are back to…”wait, what just happened.”

Gardner’s vocals are quite strong, and he inhabits Chaney’s character very well. Schafer, too, who we recently saw in “Always Patsy Cline,” finds the salty roots in Cleva’s somewhat unsympathetic character.

Costumes by Sharon Larkey Urick, getting everything right for the period between 1900 and 1920, right down to the actors’ shoes.

Director Sam Scalamoni (national tour of Elf The Musical) has led an effort that does do a good job of creating a set design and production that brings bigness to a show trying to travel. And he has done a good job of getting the show to this stage of development. Some more nipping and tucking, and it can be a truly viable touring show, though I have my doubts about the story’s ability to sustain a New York run in a large theatre. It will be interesting to follow it though its next stages.

The Encore continues to bring big polished musicals to Washtenaw County, and special projects like this world premiere that is trying to walk the road to Broadway or a national touring run. The theatre incubated Into The Wild, a world premiere musical based on the film and book of the same title. And it was able to engage Oscar-Tony-Emmy Award winning designer and director Tony Walton (who died earlier this year) for My Fair Lady. The theater, operating in its new, marvelous space, is to be commended for shining the lights of Broadway on this corner of the Midwest.

Director: Sam Scalamoni

Asst. Director/Choreographer: Jordyn Davis

Music Director: Gary Adler

Set Designer: Stephen C. Kemp

Lighting: Patricia M. Nichols

Sound Design: Chris Goosman

Props: Anne Donevan

Week of 5/23/2022

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