Saturday, May 14, 2005

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Broadway

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, one of the last big movie musicals written for the screen -- it opened in 1968!, is now the latest "film-turned-musical" to come to Broadway this season. A British import, coming to America from a successful West End run, CCBB is already a hit. Along with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Spamalot, CCBB is finding appreciative audiences with those familiar with the original films who just can't wait to see what they've done to the movie. In a season that features such shattering new plays as Doubt and The Pillowman, playing alongside such revivals as Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar named Desire, as well as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, entertainment such as CCBB is finding an audience with theatergoers that value wholesome entertainment and family-oriented shows.

The original film was by no means a masterpiece. It was already a dinosaur when it opened at the end of the turbulent sixties, and Julie Andrews was reported to have turned down the role of Truly Scrumptious after she read the script and realized that she was going to be upstaged by a flying car. The movie does have a very likeable musical score by Richard and Robert Sherman, better known as the award-winning composer and lyricist of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book.

At the Hilton Theater, the members of the competent Broadway cast headed by Raúl Esparza, Erin Dilly, and Philip Bosco seem comfortable with the fact that they are playing second banana to a wondrous invention. And the car is just that: a wondrous piece of technology that leaves audiences wondering how on earth stagecraft succeeds in getting a car airborne in such a seemingly effortless way. The performances from the three principals are quite good, but their characters are really nothing more than modified stock-figures: the widower-inventor father, the single, young, and very available daughter of a candy magnate, and the doddering grandfather always thinking of India when nature calls. It is particularly gratifying, though, to see a veteran like Philip Bosco singing and dancing the role of the grandfather that in generations past would have gone to the great George Rose.

I found the comprimario roles a lot more interesting. First there are the two Vulgarian spies, Boris and Goran, played by Robert Sella and Chip Zien, respectively. They spark up Act I with their duet "Act English." In the London show this song does not exist, instead the spies sing something called "Think Vulgar."

Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell are delicious in the roles of the Baron and Baroness of the country of Vulgaria (which looks a bit like a cartoon version of Nuremberg, circa 1936). Ms. Maxwell is hilarious as a Marlene Dietrich look-alike with a Freudian fear of children. Mr. Kudisch ably plays the role of the Baron: a despot, in turn ruled by an uncontrollable id, with a fascination for toys, stuffed animals, and thumb-sucking.

In the movie, two roles always stood out in my mind. One was the evil Childcatcher, memorably played by Robert Helpmann, and the Toymaker played by Benny Hill, a year before his bawdy shenanigans hit UK TV and would have probably cancelled out his chances of playing this sweetly natured role on CCBB. In this Broadway production the role of the Toymaker is played by Frank Raiter, and he leaves much to be desired, especially his club-footed readings of the last lines of his part. On the other hand, the Childcatcher is an inspired creation. Played memorably by Kevin Cahoon, and dressed all in black, with a wing-like cape, he is a slithering and disturbing vampire of a figure, clearly separated at birth from actor Max Schreck in the 1922 German Expressionist film Nosferatu. His solo song "Kiddy-Widdy-Winkies," sung with an unnatural Michael Jackson-like falsetto (Your reference has been "Duly Noted," Brian!) on a foggy Vulgarian street will scare the little ones and fascinate the adults -- or vice-versa.

Here lies the success of this show: like Sesame Street, the show appeals to both children and adults. The kids (and some adults I know) will love the dogs, the toys, and of course the flying car itself. But the adults will also love the double-entendres in such songs as "Toot Sweets," and "Truly Scrumptious," and also in the Baroness' line, when she looks at her childish husband, and regrets that she allowed "toys" into the marriage.

It's a nice show. You'll have fun. Go see it!

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