I had taped the Chitty movie off TV some time ago, when the stage musical adaptation was announced for Broadway, but I'd never actually seen this 1968 film. For one thing, I was already an adult when it came out, so I had no inherent interest in a picture that was aimed at the children's market. For another, I loathe most every song that the Sherman Brothers have ever written for films, though I do like their score for the Broadway show Over Here. I'm happy for all of you who love Mary Poppins so much, but the charms of its score are lost on me; I saw the movie once in 1964, didn't buy the soundtrack then, and still don't own it. So in 1968, when I heard the title song of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the radio and deemed it insipid, I knew that I wouldn't see the flick. (When I related this story to my buddy Joseph Weiss last week, he grinned and said, "Oh, the Sherman Brothers have written plenty of worse songs than "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." This was enough to make my blood run icy-cold.)
So, why did I go to see the stage version of Chitty? If it's a Broadway musical, I say, attention must be paid. But I sat there wondering if book writer Jeremy Sams (and his "additional material collaborator" Ivan Menchell) or screenwriters Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes were ultimately responsible for the dullness of the show --or if most of the blame belonged to those Sherman Brothers. I did think that the musical was smart to have the children Jeremy and Jemima Potts establish early on that "We hate school," for that line would make most kids in the audience bond with them. There is also something clever in having the kids love a wrecked car and wanting their daddy Caractacus (Raúl Esparza, his talents wasted here) to buy it for them. Dad is an inventor who optimistically says, "One of these days, one of these inventions is going to work." This happens after one of his inventions is shown to work very well indeed in delivering a hearty breakfast. Is the movie this illogical, I wonder?
Also after the car are Goran (the wasted Chip Zien) and Boris (the wasted Robert Sella), two villains from Vulgaria. How do we know they're villains? They laugh when they disclose the sinister act they're planning. Aren't we all a little tired -- no, a lot tired -- of seeing villains laugh when they disclose a sinister plan? These guys also do something that I'm sure is not in the movie: They make a direct reference to a song in Funny Girl. We've heard a lot this season about how musical comedies are cheaply citing other musicals for easy laughs; add Chitty to the list.
The Vulgarians sing a song about how they'll "Act English." It's a reasonably quick patter song and, because Zien and Sella have to sing with thick Vulgarian accents, the allegedly witty lyrics can't be easily understood. What I also thought I misunderstood --- I still think I might have -- is that the kids become acquainted with a woman whose actual name is Truly Scrumptious (the wasted Erin Dilly). It soon became clear that the talents of everyone in this show are wasted. So I decide that, during intermission, I was going to head to the bar and get wasted myself. And I don't even drink!
Caractacus Potts demonstrates a hair-cutting machine at a fair. It dismally fails, and his now-bald victim chases him all around the place. Potts runs onto a stage where a group of entertainers are doing their act, which seems to be a tribute to bamboo, and he joins in. What drives me crazy is that, every now and then, the entertainers suddenly stop singing so that Potts can have the song's punch lines all to himself. How do they all know to stop and how does Caractacus know what to sing, given that he's stumbled into the number? (This has to be a new mistake of the stage musical, I guess; it can't be in the film, for surely someone at some time in the last 37 years would have noticed the substantial flaw and spared the stage show from it.)
Goran and Boris follow Grandpa Potts (Philip Bosco) but they get too close. When he senses someone behind him, one villain lets out with a "Quack!" in hopes that the old man will assume it's just a duck. He doesn't. Says Grandfather, "It's only an owl" -- allowing the kids in the audience another we-feel-superior knee-slapper. The kids will feel more superior still when they meet the real villain, Baron Bomburst (Marc Kudisch), because he's an adult baby who carries a stuffed animal with him at all times. The Baron prohibits children in his kingdom, so that the Toymaker can make toys for the Baron alone. (The Baroness, played by Jan Maxwell, has a line with the strange ring of a double entendre: "I should have never allowed toys in our marriage.")
To ensure that the kingdom remains childless, there's a Childcatcher. This role is played by Kevin Cahoon, whose talents are more terribly wasted than anyone else's in the show, for he's completely masked and unrecognizable. He sings a song called "Kiddy-Widdy-Winkies," which, I assure you, will never inspire you to press the "Repeat" button on your CD player. This has to be a new song, for it's not the type of song that survives 37 years. Anyway, the Childcatcher does abduct Jeremy and Jemima, but when Caractacus hears about it -- after he's found other kids that the Childcatcher has captured -- he doesn't immediately spring into action. Instad, he sings a song with the kids called "Teamwork (Can Make a Dream Work)." Not a bad idea for a song -- but go ahead and rescue your kids, will you?!
Of course, it all works out splendidly. The Childcatcher is caught, put in a net, and raised all the way up to the top of the theater, out of everyone's sight. At this point, the show would seem to be over. (Will it ever be over?) But then the Childcatcher is suddenly heard from the rafters, giving a snarling laugh that echoes through the auditorium, so Truly Scrumptious takes out a rifle and shoots at him twice. The little boy seated behind me squealed in a delighted voice, "She killed him!" Yeah, every "kids' show" should include at least one premeditated murder! Why shoot and kill your captured enemy? Guess the show's creators want to give the kids a head start on their future courts-martial.
Oh, I forgot the car! There's a car in the show. In fact, Truly shoots the Childcatcher while she's in the car. (I guess she was riding shotgun.) The vehicle does a nice trick by lifting up and circling around in the air -- but by the second time it does this, I'm already a little bored, because it makes the exact same moves. It's a one-trick pony. This special effect suffers in the same way that the helicopter did in Miss Saigon: After a show opens in London, you hear so much about the big special effect that you imagine it's going to be much more impressive than it actually is when you finally get to see it on Broadway. Still, there's no question that the car is the star of Chitty, because all of the actors give it the last bow in the curtain call.
On my subway ride home, I hide my Playbill from all the other adults on the train, for I don't want anyone to know that I've been to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Instead of flipping through its pages, I look in my newspaper to see what might be on TV at 10pm; I'm sure not going to watch the movie of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]