Anyone who says that the good old-fashioned musical is dead hasn’t seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In a world of hip puppets and canned jukebox catalogues, CCBB wows you beyond your wildest expectations, bringing back the show of yesteryear, filled with wonderfully intricate and memorable music, traditional storytelling, magnificent sets, colorful costumes, creative choroegraphy and happy endings.
From the first notes of the overture (Wow! What show offers an overture these days??) you know you are going to be treated to lavish meal handed to you on a silver platter. And this show delivers. Everything is grand, grand, grand – both in terms of scale and beauty. The music is infectious, with rich layers of well-crafted melodies and full-blown orchestrations. The actors are adorned in whimsical, colorful costumes by Anthony Ward that evoke turn-of- the-century Britain and the fictitious land of Vulgaria (indeed, a delicious pun on Bulgaria – and the corseted dancers may remind you of the barmaid who served you beer last Oktoberfest.) The stage is stuffed to the gills with stunning and giant backdrops – gigantic windmills, gigantic clocks, gigantic Willy-Wonka-like contraptions, gigantic towers, gigantic toys. The effect is out of this world.
As you watch the show unfold, it all comes back to you…where have you heard this music before? The story itself is the brainchild of Ian Fleming of James Bond fame –apparently Fleming loved cars and wrote this for his children. When Chitty became a Disney movie, the songs were written by Richard and Robert Sherman, the same team who wrote the tunes for Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Aristocrats and The Parent Trap. This show recreates all Chitty’s songs for the stage, reintroducing those entrancing, wholesome tunes so iconic of that early Disney era to a new generation. And if you grew up with those, it’s so nice to hear them again.
And if you grew up familiar with the Disney film, which has been lovingly transferred to the Hilton Theater, you won’t miss its star, Dick Van Dyke. Here, Raul Esparza, known mostly for his decadent roles in Cabaret and Taboo, is charming as Caractacus Potts, the fervent inventor who loves his adorable, well-mannered children, Jeremy and Jemima (Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow, who are just too delightful, British accents and all.)
Gee, the tykes could use a mother, and that works out great because it seems that Potts could use a little romance himself. Enter Truly Scumptious (gotta love it… played by the radiant Erin Dilly, affectionately wreaking of Mary Poppins), a virtual Penelope Pitstop, whose initial spunk dissolves into a sweet and tender vulnerability as she bonds with the children – and naturally, eventually – their father. When the children sing (in unison, of course, they sing everything in unison), “Truly, you are truly scrumptious,” they mean it.
Pop, kids and grandpa (Philip Bosco, just off his acclaimed stint in Twelve Angry Men , who aces the soft-hearted curmudgeon role here) get into a heck of a cat-and-mouse game when they buy the old hunk of junk that has seen better days (that would be Chitty, the car, who even gets her own theme song.) Potts works his inventing magic and suffice it to say, the car is, well, spiffed up a bit. (“Used to be a racing car…now more of a family car!”)
Oh, but it’s not all peaches and cream. Chitty’s improvements make her a valuable commodity. The Baron of Vulgaria (the hilariously over-the-top Marc Kudisch) and his Baroness (Jan Maxwell, who sardonically channels Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Schtupp) want Chitty for themselves, and their spies (Robert Sella and Chip Zien, who give the bumbling thugs from Kiss Me Kate a run for their money during the number “Act English”) follow Chitty and the Potts gang. For all their vulgarity, these four characters are actually played more for comic relief and the actors all do quite a fine job infusing humor into their roles, making their ickiness more palatable.
However, there is one seriously ghastly element to the show. The Baroness – who abhors children – has employed the expertise of the dangerous Childcatcher (Kevin Cahoon) who lurks thru the land on the prowl for children. The notion of The Childcatcher embodies the unseen horrors in the world we live in and watching this plotline progress can be scary for children and adults alike. Still, Cahoon is deliciously spooky, baring pointy ears and long nose (better to sniff out little ones), singing off-kilter with twisted, haunting vocals, and he must be given credit for taking his role very seriously despite the many boos he gets during bows. But this is a fairy tale of sorts, and so for all its macabre, good triumphs over evil, Chitty saves the day and everyone lives happily ever after.
Peppered amidst the commotion of the plot is an array of beautiful production numbers, each one glitzier than the next, laden with lush colors and textures, wild animated sets and amazing, quirky choreography by Gillian Lynne (of Cats fame). From bamboo sticks, lollipops, umbrellas and toys, Lynne has made appealing use of props; she even throws in a dizzying circus number that would put Cirque de Soleil to shame. All the while the music is floating, lifting your spirits up with its waltzes, marches, lullabies and even a samba number written expressly for this new production.
But nothing – I mean nothing – is more awesome or inspiring than the star of the show herself – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Yes, folks, prepare yourselves – The Car simply takes your breath away. And as you’re sitting there gasping at the marvel of it all, you keep reminding yourself of your age. Because by the time Chitty makes her celebrated appearance, you have magically become eight years old again.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at The Hilton Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street.
Tickets 212-307-4100 or visit http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000366.
Review by Kerrie Smith