Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams. Based on the MGM/United Artists Motion Picture. Directed by Adrian Noble. Musical staging and choregraophy by Gillian Lynne. Associate Director Peter Von Mayrhauser. Associate Choreographer Tara Young. Fight Director B.H. Barry. Casting by Jim Carnahan, CSA. Music Coordinator Sam Lutfiyya. Additional material by Ivan Menchell. Animal Trainer William Berloni. Orchestrations and dance arrangements by Chris Walker. Production Musical Supervisor Robert Scott. Musical Director Kristen Blodgette. Lighting designed by Mark Henderson. Sound designed by Andrew Bruce. Scenery and costumes designed by Anthony Ward. Starring Raúl Esparza, Erin Dilly, Philip Bosco. Also Starring Marc Kudisch, Jan Maxwell, Chip Zien, Robert Sella, Kevin Cahoon, Frank Raiter, Henry Hodges, Ellen Marlow.
Once upon a time, some of the best show tunes saluted great characters played by great stars. Now they salute great props. Yet it says something about the dearth of humanity in this year's Broadway musicals that one such object - calling it inanimate isn't exactly appropriate - and the praises sung about it provide the most stirring and memorable thrills of the season.
So when the end of the first act of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang finally arrives, it's hardly a surprise to see the car of the title flying. Those familiar with the 1968 film on which this show is based are waiting for it; those who notice the Playbill cover, on which the scene is emblazoned, are expecting it; those who are merely watching the show can predict it. After all, by that point, the retrofitted British Grand Prix roadster has already floated on water and charmed everyone who's seen it, including the majority of patrons seeing the show in the newly renamed Hilton Theatre. So what's a little flight on top of it all?
And make no mistake, that flying is astounding. To the exultant, near-rhapsodic strains of the title song - like the rest of the score, composed by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman - Chitty sails over the stage and the first few rows of the theater, while the audience responds with deservedly enthusiastic cheers and applause. And when the car and its passengers vanish behind the swiftly descending curtain to send the audience giddily into intermission, the verdict is absolute: It's the most genuinely electric moment of the Broadway musical season.
But it really is all about the car.
The show's book, which Jeremy Sams adapted from the Roald Dahl-Ken Hughes screenplay based on Ian Fleming's story, insists otherwise: We're supposed to care about the story of a wacky inventor, his two children, their grandfather, and the delightful lady with whom the inventor is unknowingly smitten, who all get caught up in a series of scary, thrilling, and funny adventures that will result in the creation of a new family. And even if the car gets the best moments, all the songs - of the character, comedy, or plot-pushing variety - are by necessity sung by people.
However, when the car is considered by everyone (including the writers) the show's focus, what performer will be allowed to provide adequate competition? Take one of the most talented serious musical actors of his generation, Raúl Esparza, and stuff him into the role of inventor Caractacus Potts, and what makes him special evaporates. (The role was played on film by the amiable and rubber-limbed Dick Van Dyke, a much better fit.) Rewrite the female lead, Truly Scrumptious, so she's less frilly and more modern, and you subvert the earnest charms of the usually effervescent Erin Dilly and force her into a second-rate Julie Andrews impersonation. Waste the gifted Philip Bosco in the role of the warm, doddering, but flatly humorous grandfather, and you get the buffoon needed but not much else.
At least this kind of noncommittal writing results in children's roles that children can effectively play. Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow, as Caractacus's children Jeremy and Jemima, are freed of any legitimate acting expectations and allowed to be their adorable, wide-eyed selves. They deliver that (and strong singing voices) as well as any young actors under these circumstances could.
But the only two cast members projecting personalities roughly on par with Chitty's are Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell. As Baron and Baroness Bomburst, the rulers of Vulgaria who will stop at nothing to capture Chitty and every child within their nation's borders, they relish every line, chew every bit of scenery, and overact with gleeful abandon. But this show needs over-the-top, it needs unique, and that's what Kudisch and Maxwell so gloriously provide. His lightning-quick oscillations between threatening and childish, her dry-as-the-Sahara line readings and anguished wails, and the second-act baby-talk duet ("Chu-Chi-Face") they share give the show the lively zest it's otherwise missing.
It's most noticeably absent in the show's other villains, the Baron's henchmen Goran and Boris (Chip Zien and Robert Sella), and the queen's Childcatcher (Kevin Cahoon). They work too hard to project indications of character instead of generating real eccentricity from within (which is what makes Kudisch and Maxwell so delectable). Granted, the three are saddled with the evening's worst lines and songs (Zien and Sella share a particularly dire comic piece called "Act English"), but they still don't make the most of what they have.
The creative team undoubtedly does, with director Adrian Noble successfully marshaling the forces behind a show so densely populated and good-looking, you wish the material could live up to it. Aside from the show's 46 cast members and a canine ensemble, there's a dazzling array of color-drenched sets and costumes from Anthony Ward that gorgeously depicts people and places in England and the fascistic Vulgaria, and cleverly utilizes every inch of available space (including above the audience's heads); strong lighting from Mark Henderson; and peppy orchestrations and dance arrangements from Chris Walker. (Kristen Blodgette is the musical director.)
Only choreographer Gillian Lynne does uninspired work, delivering dances that find little entertainment and few interesting stage pictures in potentially joyous songs like "Toot Sweets" or "Me Ol' Bamboo." The catchiest of the Shermans' new songs is "Teamwork," sung by Potts when attempting to incite a Vulgarian children's revolt; most of the others are workmanlike at best. But those held over from the film - including Caractacus's haunting lullaby "Hushabye Mountain" and the precious "Truly Scrumptious," for Jeremy, Jemima, and Truly - generally retain their charm.
And who can forget the title song? Who can ever forget the title song? One of the most maddeningly addictive tunes composed in the last 50 years, the bouncy, fast-paced number is - by dint of its ingratiatingly simplistic music and lyrics and weak competition from the tunes in shows like Brooklyn and Little Women - one of the standout songs of the season. And it doesn't hurt that's always sung at appearances of that wonderful car, itself thoroughly unforgettable.
The rest of the show, though, is disposable, a fun enough time for children and adults that hits its marks well - if intermittently - but won't trouble your thoughts for very long afterwards. And yes, it has magical moments: Even if for only a few seconds, you'll believe a car can fly. But aren't real emotions what we want and need from theatre, even theatre like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? As long as Peter Pan is produced, it won't be difficult for families to find a show that truly flies in more ways than one.