'Chitty Chitty' on tour: clever clever

The Baltimore Sun

In the national touring production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang currently running at the Hippodrome Theatre, a car takes the final bow.

And that's fitting.

Though the production is based on the beloved 1968 film and features a cheery, family-friendly plot, an insistently catchy score and a cast with unusually strong voices, the show's true star is the auto that floats and flies.

Grumble all you want about how chandeliers that plunge from the ceiling (as in Phantom of the Opera) and helicopters landing on stage (a la Miss Saigon) are cheap tricks that get in the way of a Genuine Theatrical Experience.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a show about special effects. It celebrates theatrical artifice and invention. Its gimmicks work really well, with every cable and pulley expertly concealed.

And because nothing beats seeing the unbelievable with your own eyes, I would argue that the stage show exerts an even greater impact than the movie, though the live performance regrettably lacks the talents of the movie's lead actor, the inimitable Dick Van Dyke.

I've never seen a flying scene done as well as this one. Nearly always, the audience can see the wires that haul performers around the stage, and that inevitably robs the remarkable of its mystery.

I was seated in the fifth row of the Hippodrome, and I looked hard, but I couldn't spot the mechanism used to hoist that vehicle into the air, with four performers seated inside. It helped that the lights went down, and the auto was silhouetted against a black, star-studded sky. Still, there was nary a gleam of silver wire or of a platform rising from the stage floor.

Take another bow, Chitty.

As for the plot, well, it's always been as sugary and full of holes as Toot Sweets, "the candies you whistle, the whistles you eat."

Let's see: Caractacus Potts, an eccentric inventor and widower, and his two children, Jemima and Jeremy, travel to Vulgaria to foil the villainous Baron and Baroness of that vaguely Teutonic land, who are determined to steal Chitty, the Pottses' car, for themselves. Helping the Potts family is candy heiress Truly Scrumptious. The intrepid foursome must also rescue Grandpa Potts, who has been kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity, while outwitting the machinations of the evil Child Catcher.

Chitty is based on a story written by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, and it's fun to spot the similarities between Fleming's fairy tales for children and adults.

For starters, Bond always had a cool car and, like Potts, was obsessed with gadgets. The bad guys are always foreigners. And even the children's classic is infused with a whiff of sexuality. As names go, Truly Scrumptious ranks right up there with such Bond women as Pussy Galore and Kissy Suzuki.

Truly's name doesn't refer to a verifiable physical attribute, as does, for example, "Goldilocks." Her name reflects how she is perceived by an observer with an avid appetite. You could just eat her up.

It's also interesting to reflect on how much the role of Caractacus was designed around Van Dyke. Two routines - a dance with wooden poles, and a jack-in-the-box number - seem to have been thrown in primarily to showcase that performer's extraordinary physical gifts.

In contrast, the touring show seems to have cast its performers primarily for their vocal prowess. If we must note that the appealing Steve Wilson lacks Van Dyke's grace and plasticity, fairness compels us to add that Van Dyke couldn't hope to match Wilson's floating tenor. He boasts a voice so light and strong it could probably hoist that car all on its own.

In a similar way, Kelly McCormick is a bit chronologically challenged to play the ingenue's role. But you couldn't ask for a Truly Scrumptious with a purer, more refined tone.

Acting honors go to Dick Decareau as Grandpa Potts, who exudes pleasure at being on stage, and to Oliver Wadsworth, whose Child Catcher was so creepy, he scared even me.

My yen for dance was satisfied every time the female members of the chorus took the stage. These supple, leggy wonders dazzled in the big candy-factory number ("Toot Sweets") and at a birthday party for the Baron, inexplicably set in Brazil ("The Bombie Samba").

Not everything works. Let's just say that some of the British accents are on par with those in the film. "Act English," in which two Vulgarian spies try to impersonate the quintessential Englishman, was probably funnier in the U.K., where the show originated.

Some of the more overt comic scenes featuring the spies and the Vulgarian rulers go as flat as the tires on Truly's motorcycle.

There are times when the production seems about to careen over a cliff, with the audience trapped inside. And then, just like Chitty itself, it improbably achieves liftoff.

if you go

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang runs at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center's Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., through Jan. 18. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. $20-$65. 410-547-7328 or france-merrickpac.com.

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