- Nate Adams
'A Thousand Faces' review: The Encore's world premiere about the legacy of Lon Chaney has potential
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
Lon Chaney was a giant of his time, having risen to stardom in the early to mid-1900s pioneering innovative methods of entertaining audiences with the use of prosthetics and makeup. Chaney, a CODA (child of deaf adults), became a prominent staple in silent motion pictures amassing an iconic filmography that included “Phantom of the Opera,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and 150 others, which still live on and are taught in film classes across the world. The intent to honor Chaney is certainly element in The Encore Musical Theater Company’s world premiere of “A Thousand Faces,” an ode to the actor’s nickname given to him by various media outlets, but the production, namely the script by Eric Lane, comes up short in conveying how impactful his contributions were to motion pictures and modern day cinema.
Under the direction of Broadway staple Sam Scalamoni with music and lyrics by Rachel Devore Fogarty and Kevin Fogarty, “A Thousand Faces” is a work in progress that shows potential to be something more (the talk back with the creative team on opening night emulated both a passion and admiration for Chaney’s life), but in its current state needs some cosmetic work. The orchestration sounds beautiful, Steven C Kemp’s all purpose scenic design works wonders, the choreography flows in sync under Gary Adler’s musical direction and the entire company has shown-up in full force, committed to the project, especially lead actor Danny Gardner playing the role of Chaney, but there’s an emotional core missing. As it stands, “A Thousand Faces” tries juggling several poignant and cathartic moments between Chaney’s professional and personal life which never find their footing within the grander scope of the musical.
For starters, the show begins with a nod to Chaney’s role in “Hunchback” before quickly, through a beautiful transition I might add, going back to his childhood (played wonderfully by Vaan Otto) where the audience sees a brief glimpse of his early days before awkwardly shifting to adulthood (the use of projection title cards helps keep track of this journey). In the span of 20 minutes, we see his first marriage to Cleva Chaney (Hope Elizabeth Schafer), the birth of their child, Creighton (again played by Vaan Otto before Evan Smith takes over); and then before you know it, we’re off to Hollywood following a brief stint with a vaudeville style duo named Kolb and Dill. It’s a dizzying assortment of expositions unspooled in a very short amount of time.
Some of the dialogue and conversational pieces used throughout include vital bits of information that are blink and you’ll miss it, like Chaney’s infidelities, reckless marriage or even the culpability for his wife’s alcoholism, yet the script treats them as footnotes, failing to showcase how that would eventually affect Chaney’s career and his relationship with Creighton. By hustling through these significant life events, it’s hard to understand Chaney’s thought process or his family struggles where by the time Act II rolled around, the script tries leaning into this undercooked subplot and it comes up short. It’s as though we’re watching the SparkNotes version of Chaney’s life. You’ll get the jist of his accomplishments, but you won’t walk away feeling nourished.
Still, there’s some terrific set pieces in “A Thousand Faces:” I found the dance ballad/melody (“Tu Ne Le Vois Pas”), which reminded me of Gene Kelly’s “An American In Paris,” engrossing and when Gardner is given reign to showcase Chaney’s physicality, it’s something to behold. There’s even a fun montage of the actor’s filmography, though it moves so quickly, it's hard to ingest and appreciate the material. These powerful moments reinforce “A Thousand Faces” has the proper ingredients and rock solid creative team to push it over the edge, but an inherent lack of character development holds it back.
More one-on-one time with young Chaney and his parents (played by deaf actors Camille Jeter and Robert Schleifef who are both incredible but sadly underutilized), and interactions with Creighton and Cleva would make a world of difference. There should also be more celebration of who Chaney was and what he did aside from a nearly 60-second montage and brief mentions of “Hunchback” and “Phantom.” Also shocking to see was the abrupt disclosing of Chaney’s cancer diagnosis, one that ultimately took his life, preventing him from making the leap from silent pictures to talkies, before the ensemble sang the finale five minutes later, barely giving anyone a moment to comprehend that important piece of information.
Chaney talks in “A Thousand Faces” about creating the right allusion and “more mystery and more intrigue.” Part of his allure and what drove folks to see his movies was this idea that anyone could be Lon Chaney. Some felt themselves represented in his body of work, an icon whose reputation remains sound today. Those are big shoes to fill and if “A Thousand Faces” wants to immortalize that legacy, it should peel back the curtain, take a breath, and let us see who’s really behind the mask.
THE ENCORE MUSICAL THEATRE COMPANY’S production of A THOUSAND FACES continues through May 1st. You can click here to purchase tickets.