So many purportedly family-friendly musicals really aren’t. Loosely tailored to the taste of tykes, they leave parents self-sacrificingly bored. Not so Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which boasts stuff to bridge the generation gap: droll dialogue, catchy songs, fun story, super visuals galore, and enough smart jokiness to deliver a witty, witty bang. You can readily see where every penny of this lavish production went, and, more important, on what ticket buyers’ every penny was spent.
Brits are really the best at this kind of all-purpose whimsy: Think The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and on and on. So when Ian Fleming, as a respite from writing fairy tales for adults, tried one for his son, out came Chitty Chitty, a book that became a not-so-good movie but comes into its own as a yummy musical. Fleming’s obsession was with the multiform Evil Empire, and the deadly cold-warfare pullulating behind the façade of a Potemkin-village peace, with James Bond as its wiliest warrior. The same ideology informs his children’s book, with the villains farcicalized into the Baron and Baroness Bomburst of the wicked ministate of Vulgaria, and the hero the often lovably bumbling but ultimately triumphant inventor Caractacus Potts, with pots of pluck and charm. With the help of his dad, the huggably gruff Grandpa Potts; his two stalwart kids; and his feisty ladylove, Truly Scrumptious, as well as an invention that finally clicks—CCBB, the car that also swims and flies—he outwits the dark and dastardly, not to mention hilarious, powers of Vulgaria. Thus he strikes a mighty blow for world democracy and British fair play.
But CCBB is more than a fair play: It is a fab musical. The songs by the brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman are less than sensational but more than satisfactory. Authors of the scores for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and any number of screen and stage musicals, they have elevated serviceability into ability pure and not too simple. The book, based on the movie, is by Jeremy Sams, a chap of diverse talents (director, translator, composer, etc.), and it is infectious. Sample: Boris and Goran, Vulgarian spies plotting to steal the car, think of transforming themselves into Brits. That’s particularly hard for Goran, who asks, “Can’t I speak English and still be Vulgar?” “No,” answers Boris, “that would make you American.” (Robert Sella and Chip Zien play the pair to groovy-grotty perfection.) The director, Adrian Noble, does justice to his name, and Gillian Lynne has choreographed enchantingly. But supreme kudos must go to Anthony Ward for scenery and costumes in equal measure astonishing and adorable, and all sorts of machines, gizmos, and lesser transports of delight building up to a supercar. The cast cannot be improved upon. Raúl Esparza, as Caractacus Potts, does not quite get a chance to deploy all his dizzying gifts, but shines enough. As Truly Scrumptious, Erin Dilly lives up to both last names, and Philip Bosco is a Grandpa any discriminating grandchild would sell his or her last toy for. As Baron and Baroness, the roguishly resourceful Marc Kudisch and the amazing Jan Maxwell (is there any role she can’t dazzle with?) entertain more than baronially—royally. As the Potts tots, Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow exude savvy and charm; Frank Raiter and Kevin Cahoon sparkle as, respectively, the sweetest and vilest of Vulgarians; and any number of kids, not to mention dogs, contribute consummate merriment.
What irony that a theater formerly known as American Airlines has, with a flying-car musical, become the Hilton. Still, two and a half hours at a five-star hotel are nothing to sneeze at.