Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 27, 2005
After spending two-and-a-half hours in the Hilton Theatre watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and being left almost completely cold by the show—but also aware that most of the almost two thousand other people in the audience seemed to be having a fine old time—I searched for guidance in writing this review on the Internet Movie Data Base. What, I wondered, did critics have to say about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when it came out as a movie in 1968? Roger Ebert, as it turned out, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, had some sage words on the subject:
What I'm getting at is this. It would be useless for me to review Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from an adult point of view, because most adults are not going to see it voluntarily. The audience for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, pretty obviously, is going to be kids—and the parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents and older brothers and sisters they drag along.
Now what do the kids want to see? A kid's movie!
To which, all I can really add is: Ditto. Even that part about the kid's movie still seems to apply, for although I haven't seen the film of CCBB in some 35 years or more, I feel pretty certain that this stage adaptation is a fairly faithful rendering of what the youngsters in the crowd have been watching and memorizing on DVD over and over again. The elation in the room was the joy of familiarity, and I felt it all evening long: one little girl, about two rows behind me, had a big happy smile plastered on her face throughout, and started clapping along with the songs she knew as soon as they started.
Okay; but what sort of experience will the adults accompanying all these well-to-do children have? If mine is any indication, the answer is: not bad, but not particularly good. For a show that gives off lots of actual sparks on stage (literally: it seems like every other scene has some pyrotechnic effect or other), CCBB produces nary a metaphorical one. There are fifty people in the cast and another eighteen in the orchestra pit (not to mention a dozen or so dogs who race across the stage early in Act One); there are some two dozen musical numbers and oodles of large and diverse sets; there's a flying car, for pete's sake! But never once did I feel a twinge of excitement at having my imagination or sense of wonder exercised; nor did I get much in the way of energy or warmth from the stage. This is movie-to-musical biz by the numbers: see the show you already know and be sure to pick up the souvenir t-shirt and toy car before you go.
I'm sorry if that sounds cynical, but honestly, that's what it felt like.
The story, for the record, is about a ne'er-do-well eccentric inventor named Caractacus Potts, whose children, Jeremy and Jemima, are enamored of an old racing car. When the kids learn that the car is about to be junked for parts, they beg their father to raise the 40 shillings needed to rescue it. After a series of misadventures—one of them involving his candy invention, which brings his pluck and ingenuity to the attention of spunky candy heiress Truly Scrumptious—he obtains the money and surprises the kids by buying the car. The vehicle, restored to its former beauty by Caractacus, is christened "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (because that's what it seems to "say" when it starts up), and turns out to have some very special powers. When faced with floodwaters, it's able to float; when required to journey to far-away Vulgaria to rescue Caractacus's lovable old Dad, it sprouts wings and flies.
Now, about Vulgaria: It seems that when Chitty (the car) was in commission as a racer, the evil Baron of Vulgaria learned of its strange magical abilities. He's dispatched two bumbling agents, Boris and Goran, to track down the car and bring it—or Caractacus—back to Vulgaria. They track the car to Potts, but kidnap the wrong man, which sets off the chase that leads Caractacus, Truly, Jeremy, and Jemima to the land of Vulgaria in Act Two. Here, the evil Baroness's hatred of children has led to their banishment; a very scary guy called the Childcatcher is charged with rounding up any that appear and taking them away to someplace terrible and permanent. Naturally, Jeremy and Jemima fall into his clutches; can Caractacus and Truly, using their noggins and teamwork, save them and also rescue Grandpa?
My IMDB research led me to some commentary to the effect that the whole Vulgaria plot makes CCBB an allegory about fascism and/or the Holocaust; and I have to admit that one scene laid in a secret cavern where the Toymaker has hidden children from the Childcatcher was pretty bleak and terrifying. But the Baron and Baroness are portrayed very clownishly, so the only real monster in the show is the Grim Reaper-ish Childcatcher. And the means by which the Baron and Baroness are overthrown are so facile and simplistic that it's tough to really ascribe much moral weight to the story: the sensibility is pitched, I think, toward the very youngest of children, who will understand the black-and-white of the thing without subjecting it to any sort of analysis.
So, the show is just broad, uninspired fun. Adrian Noble's staging is never better than competent, while Gillian Lyne's musical staging and rather sparse choreography is maybe not even that: why, for example, has Raul Esparza been given Dick Van Dyke moves to accomplish in "Me Ol' Bamboo" that he's just not equipped to handle? Anthony Ward's costumes and sets are similarly lacking in memorability. The real star, of course, is the car, which has "automation and effects by Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc." (This outfit is billed in the program below Bridgehampton Motoring Club, who provide the storage facility for the "publicity Chitty"; they need a better agent.)
Raul Esparza and Erin Dilly play Caractacus and Truly; they're talented, but the only real opportunity they're given to prove that is in a short number near the end when she impersonates a music box doll and he reprises "Truly Scrumptious." Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow are fine and entirely un-cloying as Jeremy and Jemima. Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell have a blast as the Baron and Baroness, and Kevin Cahoon is effectively sinister as the Childcatcher. But Chip Zien (Goran), Robert Sella (Boris), and Philip Bosco (Grandpa) are cruelly wasted here: these enormously skillful players are reduced to playing stick figures—they may as well be walking around a theme park wearing big Mickey Mouse heads for all the actual acting they've been allowed to do.
A final, fairly important criticism: the sound, designed by Andrew Bruce, is absolutely terrible. I'd estimate that I was unable to understand about half of the spoken and sung lines in the show.
Someone should attend to that last complaint of mine; as for the rest, the target audience seems quite happy with what they're being given, so in the last analysis, who am I to judge? CCBB looks to be around for a long time, and if the hundreds of kiddies in the theatre last night are any indication, it's doing precisely the job it's supposed to.