This week, the musical Charlie: The Universal Citizen opened at the Teatro Theatre in Arkan Plaza. Directed by Ahmed El-Bohey, written by Medhat El-Adl, and starring Mohamed Fahim, Nour Qadri, Ayman El-Shewy, Emad Ismail, and Dalia El-Gendy, the show is Sea Cinema production.
Charlie, which premiered in the Riyadh season last January, is based on the life and work of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977): an inspirational artist who demonstrated on screen and in real life how to be a universal citizen who believes in the cause of humanity. The musical is modelled on Chaplin’s cinematic style, in terms of narrative, perspective and fluidity of movement.
One remarkable aspect of Charlie is how El-Adl makes the artist’s life relevant to the present historical moment. Less a biography of Chaplin than a series of milestones reflecting the man’s vision, it sheds light on the present.
Each Chaplin film featured reflects a specific challenge: The Child (1921), for example – his first feature film after a long career as writer, director, actor and composer of short films, which began in 1914 – focuses on his decision to produce his first feature film independently.
Then comes The Circus (1928), in which – seven successful films later – he proved his affiliation with street artists and his appreciation for art, forging his trademark style. It won an Academy Honorary Award “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing”. Chaplin had been nominated for best actor, but the academy decided to remove his name from the competitive class to give him this unique honour.
The play also deals with The Modern Times (1936), in which Charlie Chaplin proved his solidarity with human workers in their fight against the machine. In The Great Dictator (1940), which was nominated for five Oscars, was a resounding scream in the face of war, and a strong call for sanity in a world overtaken by madness. The film also demonstrated Chaplin’s ability to stay abreast of developments in the world of film production, with the decline of silent film and the emergence of “the talkies”.
El-Adl adopts a non-linear narrative style that flits between past and present, from Chaplin’s childhood poverty and his connection with his mother – a great inspiration in his life – to the price he paid for his moral positions as a mature artist in the US.
El-Bohey is able to present the show in a way that combines dazzling performances with a cinematically rooted style. Despite the presence of a large screen in the background, director Ahmed El-Bouhy does not fall into the trap of showing clips from the films the play tackles. Instead, generic video clips that harken back to Chaplin’s time are organically integrated into the show.
Chaplin stands out for its expressive choreography and the powerful performance of a huge dance corps on stage. Much attention is paid to the idea of entertainment, which is the goal of a musical, but the lyrical, musical and dance aspects are interwoven into a complex mosaic, each strand feeding the other strands. Choreographer Omar Patrick, composers Ehab Abdel Wahed and Nader Hamdy are in harmony with each other and El-Adl.
Hazem Shebl’s set is functional and captivating. Using modular pieces easy to repurpose, the design evokes cinema, where every scene takes you to a distinct new world. From Charlie Chaplin’s studio, to his family home in London and from the FBI office to the streets of New York, the movement is seamless and instant.
The same applies to Reem Al-Adl’s costumes which are not only true to their period and dazzling as might be expected of a musical but also practical and light. In many scenes the actors might remove an item or two to alter their appearance entirely, once again evoking the movie screen. In seconds, the mother transforms from an exhausted lady walking the streets of the neighbourhood in shabby clothes to a dancing angel in white.
The intrusive reporter suddenly turns from a dignified lady with a camera into a stripper, reflecting her true role. As for the FBI agent in his pure white suit plotting to trap his victim, he too turns into a street singer, with a guitar, playing the strings of authoritarianism and control. All these transformations take place organically, fluidly, without the viewer even realising that they are happening.
The performance of the cast is definitely among the highlights of the show: Mohamed Fahim as Charlie Chaplin, Nour Qadri as the mother, Ayman Al-Shiwe as the FBI agent, Imad Ismail as Charlie’s brother, and Dalia El-Gendy as the journalist.
Faheem’s distinctive style enables him to show Chaplin’s character behind the scenes and not just his familiar screen persona. He is an artist consumed by his art, barely smiling, pursued by the authorities and difficult production conditions as he chases his vision. Fahim has proven himself a multi-talented artist, acting as well as he sings and dances.
As for Imad Ismail, in the role of Charlie’s brother, is able to communicate the complexity of the character, who outwardly appears cheerful and carefree, supporting his brother in all his crazy decisions, while inside he remains a sad person unable to transend his miserable childhood.
Veteran actor Ayman Al-Shewi in the role of an FBI agent manages to embody the pivotal role of the authorities in Charlie’s life. He remains comfortable and confident even when he sings and dances despite his lack of experience in these arts,
Nour Qadri stars in the role of the mother, Charlie’s first inspiration, who had always dreamed of becoming an artist but was unable to realise her dream. Qadri has lightness, grace, and a charming presence, although she usually appears as a ghost or an angel.
As for Dalia Al-Jundi in the role of the journalist, she is able to express herself physically and verbally with confidence and complete immersion.
The cast manages to give the play the required sobriety in a work that combines entertainment, fascination, seriousness, and provoking thoughts and feelings at the same time.
Sea Cinema Productions, which produced Charlie, is one of an emerging powerhouse in theatre and cinematic. Founded some three years ago, before Charlie, the company produced a series of musicals including Badia’s Casino, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, which deal with popular themes inspired by the captivating Disney tales, or recall the golden age of show business in the 1930s and 1940s in Egypt. On the other hand, the company also produced Nadine Khan’s award-winning 2021 film Abu Saddam, which according to its media releases it classes “a festival film”. One of the company’s latest productions, now nearing completion, is the Amr Salama film Shamarikh.
The line Sea Cinema follows seems to be consistent with the vision of its founders, Hany Naguib and Ahmed Fahmy, “presenting cinematic and theatrical works with a new perspective, as well as seeking to be an integrated company to support the artistic scene with works targeting diverse tastes”.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly