Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Stage Review (**)

(Originally posted on on 12-03-05)

Alright, I admit it. I am way more sentimental about certain things than I really should be. It hampers me as a writer and it hampers me in all of the other non-writer… types of things… in which I engage… and stuff. This little failing of mine was really at its most evident to myself on a recent business trip to New York City. While there I tried to get tickets to see Monty Python’s Spam-A-Lot, but with the show being inexplicably sold out on a Thursday night and the only possible way of getting tickets being to stand in line and hope there was a cancellation, I opted instead to catch a performance of the musical stage adaptation of the classic family film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

So, “why” you ask, “do you say you are overly sentimental about things?” That is a good question, I would also accept the word “schmaltzy” in place of “sentimental”, as well. You see, it is like this, my most favorite things are all really fairly light natured. I am not a very dark person naturally, what darkness I have is more a result of circumstance than choice. So, really, probably one of my most favorite movies, if not my most favorite, of all time is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There was just something about it, as I watched it as a kid that just spoke to me. It just worked. And as I grew up, it took on different depth and meaning to me.

That is why, while in New York, goofing off after a long day of work and facing up to my inability to commit to a two hour wait for the off chance I could get a ticket to Spam-A-Lot and being too lazy to track down where Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was playing, that I decided to see the Stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Ok, before I get started on the actual review, I think it is important for me to state up front that as a reviewer of Live Theater I am at a distinct disadvantage, having not frequented stage productions with any regularity since… well… ever. A best guess would be since High School and would include pretty much only high school productions. Though, I did see a touring company production of Annie once (again in High School, while on my, probably, only date during those important formative years).

Having said that, please cut me some slack since I will likely criticize some things about the presentation of the material that are probably staples of Live Theater. I am just not familiar enough to recognize the conventions of the form to be totally fair in my review.

It wasn’t all that good.

How is that for cut to the chase journalism?

Based on the potential, you would expect so much more than was actually delivered. The movie was pretty much a sort of a film adaptation of a Stage Musical that never existed originally, and for the Stage version to be so much less than the movie was disappointing. I mean it was a lot less. I think the play was actually shorter than the movie. I thought that catching a show on Broadway was supposed to be a full evening’s worth of entertainment.

The story, as if you didn’t know or weren’t familiar with it, follows Caractacus Potts (Raul Esparza) an eccentric inventor who is the widowed father of two and their loopy grandfather (Philip Bosco), Truly Scrumptions (Erin Dilly) the daughter of the local super rich candy maker, and the remains of the formerly famous racing auto that has been sitting in a junkyard as a plaything for the children. Caractacus restores the Junker and then they are attacked by the minions of Baron Bomburst (Kenneth Kantor) and Grandpa Potts is kidnapped and they must rush to his rescue where they find a city in the which the children have either been imprisoned by the Baron and his wife (Jan Maxwell) or have been hidden underground. The kids get kidnapped also by the Childcatcher (Frank Raiter) and Caractacus and Truly realize that they must free not only his kids, but all the kids, rescue Grandpa and overthrow the government.

And oh yeah, the car is magical. It can fly, and float and kinda think on its own, and the whole point of the Baron’s interest in the grandpa was based on his intent to steal the car or have one just like it made.

So, here is where my unfamiliarity with theatrical conventions hinders me. My expectation for the stage version would be that the romance part of the story would be emphasized and the action set pieces part of the story would be muted some. However, the exact opposite occurs. The framing device from the film, which is crucial to the believability of the relationship that develops between Caractacus and Truly, in which Caractacus tells the kids a story about the fantastical history of the car while on a picnic on the beach and simultaneously explaining his feelings for Truly while Truly listens in, is totally absent from the play.

The absence of that part of the story hinders the play the most, any depth the story has is hidden there, and without it the play is nothing more than a trifle, a children’s show. Not that that is a necessarily horrible thing, but why do that when you could create something with a lasting effect, rather than this, a mild diversion that costs an arm and a leg.

As such, the central relationship of the piece is not believable. Caractacus and Truly don’t come across as two people that have fallen in love and in the end, which is literally them flying away in triumph, professing their timeless love to each other, from Pottsylvania after the overthrow of the Baron and his wife is unsatisfying.

It was nice, though, to see the musical numbers from the movie staged. Not all of them were memorably handled, but there was one moment that almost threatened to transcend the movie moment when Caractacus puts his two kids to sleep and heads to the fair to try to raise the needed money to buy the car before it is sold off. It was a very nice segue from one set piece to the next that literally gave me a bit of a chill. However, beyond that and the wonderfully weird performance of Jan Maxwell as the Baroness, there was nothing in the play that really made you forget the movie and feel like the play was its own thing and could exist in a world without the movie to rely on for context.

I also struggled with the seeming need in the play to always break the fourth wall and nod knowingly to the audience. I can understand it in some situations, but not in all of them. But again, this just might be one of the conventions of live theater with which I am unfamiliar.

Overall, I was disappointed, but not horribly. It was a decent child’s entertainment, but since I am not, strictly speaking, a child anymore, I really needed more depth and more investment of character than I thought was delivered. The flying car itself was a marvel and it would be great to see how it worked on a lighted stage, but in the end it wasn’t enough to justify the night.

My expectation, which in this case was flawed, was that the stage adaptation would magnify the resonance inherent in the story and be restricted with regard to the more fantastical action elements, but the exact opposite was true. The great thing about theater though, and again I am going off my own stiff assumptions, is that the presentation is never written in stone, it can be a constantly changing beast, so hopefully there is the possibility of a restaging in which some of the glaring omissions that I found could be rectified.

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