Produced by Big League Productions, Inc. and presented for the first time in the Triangle by Broadway Series South, the musical extravaganza Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a real humdinger while its titular wrecked and rebuilt Grand Prix-winning racecar is motoring across the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage, floating in fog on an imaginary nighttime ocean, or — most magical of all — flying through the air with its intrepid driver and his three precious passengers singing and waving. Indeed, the ingenuity involved in giving this 1920s roadster wings easily outshines that mechanical genius required to have a helicopter to hover briefly in the dark during the North Carolina Theatre’s recent powerhouse production of Miss Saigon.
Although the touring version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang retains the catchiest tunes from the 1968 MGM/United Artists movie on which it is based, it is really a big-budget children’s show that features spectacular sets and costumes by English designer Anthony Ward and jaw-dropping special effects which spurred the opening-night audience to give the show an exuberant standing ovation Tuesday night.
The razor-thin plot of this 2002 West End and 2005 Broadway hit is like something from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” only instead of bumbling Russian nogoodniks such as Boris and Natasha eternally scheming against eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts (Steve Wilson), his precocious children Jeremy and Jemima (Zachary Carter Sayle and Camille Mancuso), and his new female friend Truly Scrumptious (Kelly McCormick), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has the dim-witted Mutt-and-Jeff pair of Vulgarian spies Boris and Goran (Dirk Lumbard and Scott Cote) dreaming up increasingly outlandish ways of stealing the rejuvenated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from the Potts family and presenting the three-time Grand Prix winner as a birthday present to their childish and hopelessly spoiled sovereign Baron Bomburst (George Dvorsky) and his sexy but sinister sweetie Baroness Bomburst (Elizabeth Ward Land), who abhors children so much that she’s banished them from Vulgaria.
Steve Wilson and Kelly McCormick make a handsome couple — and perfect comic foils — as Caractacus and Truly, who cross verbal daggers when they first meet but eventually learn how not to rub each other the wrong way (to mix metaphors). Zachary Carter Sayle and Camille Mancuso, who alternate the roles of Jeremy and Jemima Potts with Jeremy Lipton and Aly Brier, were cute; and Dirk Lumbard and Scott Cote ham it up hilariously as Boris and Goran when their body mics allow them to be understood.
The more that Baron and Baroness Bomburst occupy the spotlight, the sillier Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gets. George Dvorsky is mildly amusing as the greedy baron, but Elizabeth Land is a true delight as the wickedly funny baroness. Dick Decareau adds a pithy comic cameo as the irrepressible Grandpa Potts, Richard G. Rodgers is compelling as the sympathetic Vulgarian Toymaker who helps the Caractacus Potts and Truly Scrumptious invade Vulgaria’s royal palace and turn the tables on Baron and Baroness Bomburst, and Oliver Wadsworth adds a chilling characterization as the monstrous Childcatcher, who stalks, snatches, and snuffs out the lives of the littlest Vulgarians.
Director Ray Roderick, who also created a touring version of the Broadway script, combines with choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter to create some high-stepping production numbers, with “Toot Sweets” and “Me Ol’ Bamboo” the pick of the litter. Although Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is such silly fluff that film critic Leonard Maltin dismissed the original movie as “one big Edsel, with totally forgettable score and some of the shoddiest special effects ever,” the stage musical — with its fabulous special effects — nevertheless had this reviewer’s inner child dancing in delight for much of the evening. Body-mic problems, which rendered some of the early dialogue and lyrics unintelligible, could not completely dampen the thrill of watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang take off or stifle the laughs when Caractacus Potts’ Rube Goldberg-type inventions, such as his automatic hair-cutting machine, malfunctioned.
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