Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Grease
It says a lot about a show when a car gets the final bow. It's an accurate acknowledgment of the reliance that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has on technical wizardry rather than well-crafted storytelling. As displayed on the national tour that is currently running in Dayton, Ohio, at the Schuster Center, this version of the show fails to fly, despite worthwhile performances and inventive design elements.
Based on the 1968 film classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the tale of eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts and his children Jeremy and Jemima. With the thanks of Grandpa Potts, newly found family friend Truly Scrumptious and a flying car, the trio must fight off the attempts of a naughty group from the country of Vulgaria (including the Baron and Baroness, a pair of bumbling spies, and a menacing Child-Catcher) to steal the car for their own selfish plans.
This stage version was adapted by Jeremy Sams and follows the same basic outline of the film. However, much of what came across as both magical and authentic on the screen feels bland and calculated on stage. The humor is either that which is funny only to a five-year-old, or is inappropriately sexual in nature, and not anything in between. Furthermore, the show feels very padded, with sequences extended seemingly for the sake of bringing the show's running time to a full two and a half hours.
The bouncy score by children's film score masters Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman includes songs from the movie as well as new additions composed for this version. The new songs, however, can't match the quality of classics like "Truly Scrumptious," "Hushabye Mountain" and the infectious title song.
Tour Director Ray Roderick has tweaked the script and direction since the 2005 Broadway production (directed by Adrian Noble). It's uncertain whether to credit this reviewer's lowered expectations (having seen the dull New York incarnation) or actual improvements, but the show seems somewhat livelier on tour overall. There are still flashes of brilliance that are unfortunately countered by moments of sheer boredom, but these are primary book issues. Joann M. Hunter has taken over choreography duties from Broadway stager Gillian Lynne, but the dances likewise range from strong ("Me Ol' Bamboo") to mediocre ("Toot Sweets").
Steve Wilson (an eager and likable Caractacus) and Kelly McCormick (the strongwilled Truly) both sing exceptionally and have sufficient stage presence and chemistry. Zachary Carter Sayle and Aly Brier display confidence and obvious talent as the Potts children. Though their material isn't the best, the "comedy relief" roles are performed with aplomb by Dick Decareau (Grandpa), Elizabeth Ward Land (Baroness), George Dvorsky (Baron), Dirk Lumbard (Boris) and Scott Cote (Goran).
Robert Bissinger's adaptation of Anthony Ward's Broadway set design isn't as elaborate, but it is still quite impressive and unique. It is hard to deny the brilliance of the amazing effects that allow the car to fly and float, as it appears to do with ease and theatrical flair. The excellent lighting by Charlie Morrison is showcased in the title number (which is also a directorial highlight). Mr. Ward's costumes are also fun, colorful, and attractive.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a technical and design masterpiece, but, even with strong performances and a fair share of memorable songs thrown in, it's still unable to overcome the tepid storytelling of this tale of imagination and hope. The show ran at the Schuster Center in Dayton January 20-25, 2009. Information on the tour can be found at http://www.chittyontour.com.-- Scott Cain