Actors often worry about appearing on stage with those perennial scene-stealers: children and dogs. In "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," which opened Thursday at Broadway's Hilton Theatre, even the show's kids and canines are upstaged by its title character, a flying red-and-gold motor car that gets the audience positively giddy with delight.
The automobile is quite something, a technological marvel that, yes indeed, does float high above the stage in this gargantuan musical, a huge show that actually fits quite snugly into the mammoth Hilton, one of Broadway's biggest houses.
In "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," a theme-park musical with an English accent, more is more, even when the story becomes less and less. It's cheery, relentless and constantly in motion.
With all that activity, "Chitty," a London success based on the 1968 movie that starred Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes, should keep the little ones occupied even if they can't quite follow the story. it tells of an eccentric British inventor and single father, Caractacus Potts, who salvages a junked heap of metal and turns it into a soaring roadster.
The car is coveted by the Baron and Baroness of Vulgaria, nasty folk who hate children and even have a creepy creature called the Childcatcher to round up any stray youngsters. Along the way, Caractacus, played by a game Raul Esparza, has a mild romance with Truly Scrumptious (a winsome Erin Dilly), a woman of sweet determination and a very pretty voice.
Jeremy Sams' meandering book plods along with a minimum of laughs until those Vulgarians, portrayed by a hammily robust Marc Kudisch and a delightfully comic Jan Maxwell, make an extended appearance in Act 2. Their excesses are funny. Unlike the Childcatcher, a Nosferatu-like fellow who is genuinely scary (Kevin Cahoon in fine spectral form), you actually like these villains.
The eclectic score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman reinforces the show's persistent sunniness.
The title song is one of those hypnotic ditties that will permanently imprint on your brain. Try to get it out of your head. Impossible.
The rest of the songs range from a lush lullaby to a music-hall turn to a campy samba to anthems that deliver homilies such as "teamwork can make a dream work." Gillian Lynne's choreography is often boisterous but more athletic than inspired.
Yet designer Anthony Ward, who did both the sets and the lavish costumes, has delivered a parade of inventive, visually stunning scenery. From a windmill home base for Caractacus, his two children and his father (the ever reliable Philip Bosco) to a gleaming candy factory to a sparkling fun fair to a grim dungeon that recalls "Les Miserables" at its gloomiest, the sets never stop.
Neither does the show. Except for the airborne antics of that flying car, which director Adrian Noble cagily restricts to the first and second-act finales, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" remains resolutely sugarcoated and earthbound.
Although the cast is full of stars, the final curtain call for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" goes to the title character, the flying car.
It deserves to take a bow.
The humans onstage exert superhuman energy to enliven this not-very-compelling story, but the show mainly comes to life when the gigantic car appears.
It is a huge presence - low, sleek, with a gleaming copper body and far longer than your grandfather's Bugatti.
In fact, Chitty makes only a few appearances, one at the end of each act. But when it takes flight, gently rising aloft and then sashaying around in the air, strutting its stuff, the effect is incredibly sexy.
Whether it is worth the wait - the two acts are both very long - is another question.
The 1968 movie was an unabashed effort to cash in on the success of the 1964 film "Mary Poppins." It had the same star - Dick Van Dyke - and a score by the same composers, the Sherman brothers. Both stories included flying.
But "Mary Poppins" was a Walt Disney production, made when Disney himself was still alive. He was a demanding boss, but a great storyteller. All his original films radiate his passionate belief in what he was doing.
By contrast, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a cynical affair, a jerry-built plot and a flimsy score.
Its chief character is an unsuccessful inventor, Caractacus Potts, who somehow manages to turn a car bound for the scrap heap into a flying wonder. Through contrived circumstances, he, his children, a wealthy girlfriend (ickily named Truly Scrumptious) and his absent-minded father find themselves in the land of Vulgaria, where the baroness hates children.
Baroness Bomburst employs a Childcatcher to imprison them, which provides about five minutes of suspense in the second act.
But for the most part, the evening is listless, the plot merely providing pretexts for the unexciting songs and Anthony Ward's lavish, imaginative sets and costumes.
Since Ward's effects are the main attraction, why does it have to last 2-1/2 hours? If the show were shorter, you could run it all day long.
The cast is amazing, and I only hope they're being paid enough that when their yearlong contracts are fulfilled, they can afford to do work worthy of their talents.
This applies especially to Raul Esparza, one of our gutsiest actors. Nothing he does can make Caractacus anything but a standard hero. The material doesn't give him a fighting chance.
The same is true of Erin Dilly, who in other roles has indeed been truly scrumptious but as Truly Scrumptious is the captive of the mechanical writing.
Only Jan Maxwell, as the evil Baroness, manages to give her character an edge. Marc Kudisch is funny as her long-suffering husband, as is Philip Bosco as Caractacus' dizzy father. Chip Zien and Robert Sella are adorable as two Vulgarian spies. Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow are fine as Caractacus' children.
It is sad to contemplate the transformation of Broadway into a kiddy version of Branson, Mo.
Disney's Broadway shows - "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" - at least have good scores, and Julie Taymor's work on "Lion King" is extraordinarily inventive.
"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," which makes no demands on children's imaginations, can only give them the impression that the theater is where you go for empty-headed spectacle.
Face it: The car's the star.
Forget cascading chandeliers, whirring helicopters and free-flying vampires - in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," which opened at the newly named Hilton Theatre last night, it's the eponymous auto that grabs the gasps. And attention.
In fairness, all the Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms scattered through the show delight, with their delicious ratchets, gears, pulleys, sprockets and spindles, plus other assorted flying objects.
But nothing comes close to that triumph of theatrical hydraulics, the flying car itself, which goes up, down, left and right, and for a few dizzy moments actually hovers over the first rows of the orchestra.
Ian Fleming, upon whose children's book the story is based, would surely have loved it, while James Bond would probably have traded in his Aston Martin for one.
The musical itself is the kind of show adults assume children will love, and most of the time, they'll have assumed correctly.
Certainly a show where the score - rhythmically irritating and melodically unmemorable - has its audience clapping in unison during the overture can't be all bad.
But even if you forget - and it's not difficult -the music and lyrics of Richard M. Sherman and Robert Sherman (of "Mary Poppins" fame), the story itself is so thin that if it were ice you could swim in it.
Jeremy Sams' book - adapted from the film script by Roald Dahl - revolves around an eccentric young widowed inventor, Caractacus Potts (Raul Esparza), trying to provide for his two kids (Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow), and his father, Grandpa Potts (Philip Bosco).
Despite the vile machinations of a Ruritanian European power called Vulgaria, Potts manages to keep the motorcar he's rescued from the junkyard and restored for his kids, and win the hand of the aptly named confectionery heiress, Truly Scrumptious (Erin Dilly).
Unfortunately, even the normally redoubtable Bosco, as a model of a Major General with a fixation on his outdoor privy, all fade into the background beside that flying car.
In London three years ago, these goodies found a rallying point around the charismatic charm of Michael Ball's Caractacus, but here with no such center in a miscast Esparza, the Vulgarian baddies have it much their own way.
Marc Kudisch and especially Jan Maxwell -an impassive lady with a carefree way of cleaning revolvers - are terrific as Baron and Baroness Bomburst, a pair with a pathological hatred of children. Equally splendid are their sidekicks, Goran and Boris (Chip Zien and Robert Seila), who are straight out of English panto tradition.
A nicely sinister touch is provided by Kevin Cahoon's genuinely creepy Childcatcher (he really scared some of the kids around me), who has one of the best exit lines in the modern theater.
Of course, this is a musical where the gorgeous props, scenery and costumes (by Anthony Ward) carry all before them. And director Adrian Noble and choreographer Gillian Lynne are conventional enough and smart enough to ensure that the performers keep of their way.
It's essentially a children's show, but the adults they bring along with them, shouldn't have too bad a time - especially when Zien, Sella, Kudisch and Maxwell are front and center.
And who says Broadway has lost the human touch?
The title character - and undisputed star - of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," the lavish wind-up music box of a show that opened last night at the Hilton Theater, is an automobile that swims, flies and rescues people in distress if they remember to say please. Chitty routinely receives more enthusiastic applause than any of the other cast members; she is allowed the final bow in the curtain calls; and the audience claps along in tribute whenever her theme song is played, starting with the overture. The darn thing probably has a dressing room that would make Nathan Lane choke with envy.
There are also some real and very talented people in the cast, including Raúl Esparza, Philip Bosco and Jan Maxwell. (Ms. Maxwell is the sole reason for grown-ups to attend this show without children.) Of course, you cannot always understand what they are saying or singing. But words muffled by miking and plummy British accents don't much seem to matter to the alternately fidgety and absorbed audience, which surely has the youngest median age of any show on Broadway. This is, after all, a work that makes "The Lion King" look as lurid as "Mondo Cane."
No, it's the playthings that are the thing in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," which is directed by Adrian Noble and (far more important) designed by Anthony Ward: windmills and Rube Goldberg machines and a levitating miniature plane, blimp and (for that irresistible dash of bathroom humor) outhouse.
This makes the experience of attending this production, which has been a huge hit in London and is based on the rather cheesy movie musical of the same title from 1968, like hanging out for two and a half hours at the Times Square branch of Toys "R" Us, a convenient two blocks from the theater. Since orchestra seats for "Chitty" cost a C note, doing show and store in the same day is not recommended except for the rich and reckless.
The original inspiration for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a children's book by Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, which have been such a boon to the action-film industry. "Chitty" translates the sensational motifs of the world of Bond, especially its obsessions with velocity and gadgetry, into children's terms. As one character says of the glamorously spiffed-up Chitty, who begins the show as a wreck in need of a makeover: "Used to be a racing car. Now more of a family car!" (Jeremy Sams's script, like comic strips, does not stint on exclamation points.)
In addition to the Bondian emphasis on technological gimmickry, the show features such Flemingesque touches as a heroine with a mind of her own and a self-advertising name (Truly Scrumptious instead of Pussy Galore); a demonically ambitious mad man, in this case (in lieu of a Dr. No) a teddy bear-clutching, toy-crazy baron; and a fearsome henchman (à la Jaws), who in "Chitty" takes the form of the sinister Childcatcher. Played by Kevin Cahoon, the Childcatcher is a ringer for that great silent movie vampire, F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Everybody wants to get his hands on the talented Chitty, except for the Childcatcher, who just wants to make children disappear.
Of course, there really isn't a Bond figure per se, as that might deflect the spotlight from the scenery-chewing Chitty. But there is Mr. Esparza, best known on Broadway for doing divine decadence ("Cabaret," "Taboo"), who scrubs up into wholesomeness to play a winsomely awkward, widowed inventor named Caractacus Potts. He has a winsomely tedious father, Grandpa Potts (Mr. Bosco), and two winsomely wistful children (Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow), who sometimes speak in unison and would wuv a mummy of their own. Enter Truly Scrumptious (Erin Dilly, doing Julie Andrews by way of Madame Tussaud), a candy factory heiress.
Like Chitty, Truly has a song named after her, though how that got past Ms. Bang Bang's agent I'll never know. Its lyrics compare Truly to "a cherry peach parfait." Similes like that one come courtesy of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, the songwriting brothers who also did the livelier musical numbers for "Mary Poppins." The tunes for "Chitty" are adhesively rhythmic, repetitive and chipper, not unlike what you might hear in sing-along hour in a pre-K class. The words confirm the show's G-rated sensibility again and again: "Teamwork can make a dream work"; "When family love shines through, that's the greatest love of all."
The performers, especially Mr. Esparza, sometimes try to create the impression of real and spontaneous feelings, a noble but doomed attempt. There is some mechanically efficient dancing (choreographed by Gillian Lynne, of "Cats" fame), though the audience probably prefers the battalion of real live dogs that dash across the stage in the first act. And, yes, the car really flies, though not with the greatest of ease, and you fear for the safety of its occupants.
Cranky grown-ups will be most diverted by the performances of Marc Kudisch and especially Ms. Maxwell, who play the child-loathing Baron and Baroness of the empire of Vulgaria and who have been given some appealingly ripe dialogue. Ms. Maxwell - who sports Victoria's Secret-style costumes, sticky-bun hair coils and the most inventive comic timing in town - does the best variation on Marlene Dietrich's Teutonic world-weariness since Madeline Kahn in "Blazing Saddles."
The real star, of course, aside from the car, is Mr. Ward, who has created sets and costumes that look as expensive as they no doubt are, a rarity among Broadway musicals at the moment. Although all those machines devised by Caractacus don't really do anything, they at least look like fun. The Potts's windmill of a home is a place most children would surely love to inhabit.
And for numbers set in a candy factory and in the blighted land of Vulgaria, Mr. Ward has devised some breathtakingly monumental scenic effects. Their imagery naggingly recalls the cold, futurist milieus of movies like "Modern Times" and "Metropolis," in which machines rule the universe. As "Chitty" so cheerfully testifies, that future has arrived.
The lobby of the newly renamed Hilton Theater resounds with the kind of aggressive merchandise-hawking rivaled on Broadway only at "The Lion King" across 42nd Street. That seems entirely appropriate for a show with an automated heart. The good news is that "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a lot more diverting than the nearly unwatchable MGM movie and far tighter in its Broadway incarnation than in the belabored London staging that spawned it. While the car floats and flies, the unapologetically quaint musical soars mainly in its technical displays. But it offers cheery clap-along distraction for the under-12s and more than a modicum of charm for those forced to accompany them.
Based on James Bond creator Ian Fleming's children's book about an eccentric, widowed British inventor with a magical car, the 1968 movie's story was expanded by co-screenwriter Roald Dahl to include the inventor's tales of the sinister empire of Vulgaria, where infants are outlawed. Despite its thinly veiled satire of Jewish persecution under the Nazis, there was little evidence of the sly wit of 007 in this lumbering epic of cutesy, toodle-pip British preciousness. The film is remembered mostly for the nightmares inspired by Robert Helpmann's grotesquely campy Childcatcher.
The Sherman brothers' English music hall-style songs are a pallid echo of their work on "Mary Poppins," including the title tune and "Truly Scrumptious," surely two of the most insidious ditties ever written, guaranteed to loiter in the head for days. Even in 1968, the movie separated the cool kids from the geeks.
It's surprising, then, that after a plodding first act overstuffed with songs entirely dispensable to the narrative, the stage musical yields some genuinely enjoyable moments in its more streamlined Broadway version. And while the performers are secondary in importance to the mechanics of the show, some of the fun is supplied by the superior cast, led by one of Broadway's most dynamic young musical talents, Raul Esparza, somewhat oddly cast and underused as the inventor Caractacus Potts.
The chief unexpected pleasure, however, comes from Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell as the malevolently infantile Baron and Baroness Bomburst of Vulgaria, their fruity antics putting their counterparts in both film and Brit legit versions to shame.
But the car is unmistakably the star. A theme park ride given diva treatment, the titular jalopy gets the biggest applause of the show, and rightly so. From the moment the beat-up former Grand Prix auto reappears, spruced up and gleaming after Caractacus' makeover, the car is a formidable piece of stage gadgetry that strikes as much awe in the audience as it does in Potts' two wide-eyed tykes, Jeremy (Henry Hodges) and Jemima (Ellen Marlow).
When Chitty spouts a hovercraft undercarriage and sails away from an approaching Vulgarian battleship, the anticipation becomes palpable. When it takes wing and flies the first time, right before intermission, the crowd goes wild. Its operating mechanisms artfully hidden by Mark Henderson's twinkling night-sky lighting, the vehicular flight up around the stage and out over the orchestra unleashes a ripple of "How'd they do that?" whispers through the theater, a rare achievement in the era of digitally facilitated spectacle.
This is a mixed blessing for the show's feeble hint at romance between Caractacus and Truly (Erin Dilly), as it is for the rest of the silly plot, all overshadowed by the eponymous gas guzzler.
For reasons never made entirely clear, the Baron wants Chitty, dispatching spies Goran (Chip Zien) and Boris (Robert Sella) to fetch the car. The bumbling stooges instead kidnap Grandpa Potts (Philip Bosco), forcing Caractacus, the kids and Truly to pursue them to Vulgaria, where Jeremy and Jemima fall prey to the Childcatcher (Kevin Cahoon).
Anyone wistful for the days when "Annie" kept Broadway overrun with adorable urchins will be gratified by developments in the second act, when a band of ragamuffin exiles emerge from the sewers to aid in the rescue.
Aside from the prudent measure of introducing the Vulgarian story element at the outset -- something the movie failed to do until midway -- Jeremy Sams' adaptation shuffles through the sketchy essentials with no great innovations. Some of the padding has been pruned from the bloated version in London, where a running time near three hours for musicals seems mandatory.
The ambling first act, in particular, could still use some shrinkage, notably a carnival interlude hatched out of Jeremy's and Jemima's dreams and populated by some creepy clowns. Even the candy factory "Toot Sweets" song that was one of the movie's splashier numbers has little bearing on the plot -- though it provides some scene-stealing canine turns.
But when Chitty soars, the show gains belated momentum, goosed along further by Kudisch and Maxwell's saucy despots. The appearance of the self-absorbed Baron and his tottering, indulgent consort ushers in a mischievous spirit that blows away the show's earnest exuberance like a fresh breeze, highlighted by the couple's sticky endearments in "Chu-Chi Face." Even their shoehorned Brazilian party number "The Bombie Samba" now provides a welcome opportunity for more of the thesps' well-oiled shtick.
Zien and Sella (done up like a benign Marilyn Manson) are more stridently ingratiating with their klutzy villainy. But while the thesps seem somewhat embarrassed to be slumming it in such an undemanding vehicle, there's an appealing, relaxed charm to Esparza's foppish Caractacus, and Dilly's Truly is schoolmarmish but warm.
In an about-face from his recent "Twelve Angry Men" turn, Bosco makes a likable figure of dotty retired army man Grandpa Potts, while Hodges and Marlow stay just the right side of saccharine as the kids. Cahoon, who outshone Matthew Broderick in "The Foreigner" earlier this season, is a suitably hissable Childcatcher, his airy singsong cry of "Chiiiiil-dren" liable to strike fear into impressionable tots in the audience.
Subscribing to the 1980s school of British visual bombast in musicals, director Adrian Noble rarely resists a chance to have someone careening aerially about the stage, no matter how thinly motivated. Pity that Gillian Lynne's creaky musical staging and choreography didn't get airborne more often; a few arbitrary cartwheels downstage while the ensemble gambols about in formation just doesn't cut it.
Aside from the car, the real elevation in this lavish $15 million production comes from Anthony Ward's elaborate designs (he also did the flavorful costumes), with their witty mix of storybook and industrial elements. Notable among them are the mittel-European Vulgarian town square; the Childcatcher's gothic cage-on-wheels, drawn by a sleek black carousel horse; the toymaker's workshop; and the kids' underground hideout. Ward also makes clever use of miniatures, including what must be the Broadway first of an outhouse airlifted by a zeppelin.