Encore Theatre premieres a new musical based on the life of silent star Lon Chaney


A stage scene from The Encore Theatre's production of A Thousand Faces based on the life of Lon Chaney

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography

In addition to presenting classic American musicals and lively cabaret shows, The Encore Theatre in Dexter is also doing its part to expand the musical theater repertoire with premiere presentations of new musicals.

This month, Encore is presenting the world premiere of A Thousand Faces, a musical bio on the life of silent-screen star Lon Chaney. 

As with any new theatrical production, the first presentation is an opportunity for the creative team to make adjustments and test run the audience's response to the new material. The book writer, the composer, the lyricist, and the director will tweak this show as the weeks go on. 

They’re off to a good start but audiences might be a bit surprised by the show’s approach to telling the Chaney family story.

Along with the great silent comedy stars, Lon Chaney's name and films still resonate with audiences. He was the man of a thousand faces. He was an actor who hid himself in characters that were both physically and psychologically damaged. Chaney was famous for his performances in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Unholy Three, Laugh, Clown, and He Who Gets Slapped. He did his own shock-producing makeup and twisted his face and body into a dozen different contortions. But he could also show his own face and give a tough performance in the contemporary war drama Tell It to the Marines.

After a scene of Chaney adjusting his Quasimodo makeup and trying on tortured facial expressions, A Thousand Faces takes us back to Chaney’s youth, because this isn’t a story about making horror movies, it’s about family.

Chaney grew up in Colorado Springs. His parents were both deaf. But they were also great and loving parents who encouraged his love of show business. Chaney and his brother traveled the country as a song and dance routine. When his brother went back to family in Colorado, Chaney stayed on as a manager for a traveling vaudeville show where he met and married a dancer in the show.

Chaney and his wife, Cleva Creighton, have a son, Creighton. But the marriage soon sours over the conflicting ambitions of the two performers and Creighton is caught in the middle. A shocking suicide attempt destroys whatever chance the family had. When Creighton is 10 years old, his mother leaves and after some time in boarding schools, he settles in with his father and stepmother.

This is the story that the creators of A Thousand Faces choose to tell. It’s about the tensions between ambitious spouses, the fragility of the human spirit, and the miscommunication between fathers and sons.

Director Sam Scalamoni has assembled a talented cast to bring life to Eric Lane’s sensitive book, Rachel Devore Fogarty’s music, and her husband Kevin Forgarty’s lyrics. Rachel Fogarty’s music channels the popular dance music of the early 20th century for the up-tempo vaudeville dance routines and creates a soft, haunting underscore under the direction of musical director Gary Adler. Considering the usual accompaniment of silent films, the score misses a chance to also channel the moody and ominous organ music of the day. Kevin Forgarty’s lyrics are meant to move along the story efficiently and are not stand-alone pop songs. On occasion, the music and lyrics are a bit overwrought.

Scalamoni and his cast capture the intended fury and warmth that underlies many family dramas.

Danny Gardner plays Lon Chaney from song-and-dance dandy to movie star and creative genius with the mix of drive and compassion that made Chaney beloved by audiences. He is a strong singer and handles those power vocals superbly but also handles the quieter reflective songs.

Hope Elizabeth Schafer has the difficult task of playing Clea, a woman who abandons a 10-year-old son and is driven by ambition at a time when that was frowned on for a woman. But she pulls it off. She has some bitter, biting, and realistic scenes of rage and jealousy but also has quiet moments of self-discovery. She also sings and dances through a variety of musical styles.

Vaan Otto is the amazing revelation in this cast. He plays the young Lon and the young Creighton. He brings life, enthusiasm, and depth to his performance. He has a beautiful choir boy’s voice that rings like a bell. This is a gifted young performer with a future.

Evan Smith is the older Creighton. He makes the teenager a likable rebel who tries to make sense of his already unbalanced life. Of course, Creighton would become an actor himself and win his own fame as Lon Chaney Jr. in the Wolfman monster movies of the 1930s and in his definitive performance of Lennie in the film Of Mice and Men.

Deaf actors Camille Jeter and Robert Schleifer play Chaney’s parents and show once again the beauty of American Sign Language to convey deep feelings.

The creative Lon Chaney is shown. There is a sequence of snippets recreating scenes from the famous movies. The set is a combination of backstage at a vaudeville theater and a movie set. But this isn’t the focus. The creators need to bring that side of Chaney’s life more to the center. It is what drives him and what inspires his son to follow his father’s path, even as his father warns of the pressures of the movie business and how they damage family life. 

The audience needs to see why Lon Chaney still matters and why his films are still a draw to an audience on Turner Classic Movies along with Chaplin and Keaton while other stars have faded.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"A Thousand Faces" will continue at The Encore Theatre in Dexter through May 1. For more information and tickets, visit theencoretheatre.org or call 734-268-6200.