The flying flivver is meant to be the pièce de résistance of this extravaganza's special effects. It's one of a series of cute-ish surprises that producers stalking mucho bucks on the Great White Way have decided are what the undiscerning public wants in the way of family entertainment. These visual and audio moments are, of course, substitutes for the hallmarks of previous top-notch musicals that delighted kids from three to 93: imaginative songs, outstanding libretti, creative choreography, and big-hearted, scintillating performances.
Except for Maxwell's trouping and some intermittently agreeable turns by other performers, such ingredients are nowhere to be found in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, just as they have been missing from such other shows as the recently shuttered Good Vibrations. The sole qualification for large-budget productions nowadays is that they present something tried and true -- or, what the hey, tried and trite. Popular song catalogues or hit movies will do for the pegs.
It's the latter category into which Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fits. This is a musicalization (with a libretto by Jeremy Sams) of the panoramic but so-so 1968 film, which was itself an adaptation of Ian Fleming's 1964 children's book. Fleming was always taken by cars with unusual abilities, now wasn't he? For the kids, however, it isn't James Bond at the wheel but Caractacus Potts (Raúl Esparza), an inventor with two motherless children, Jeremy (Henry Hodges) and Jemina (Ellen Marlow). The other main characters are Potts's dad (Philip Bosco) and a lively soubrette called -- wait for it! -- Truly Scrumptious (Erin Dilly). After Potts refurbishes the titutar auto, he and the others fight to keep it from the clutches of Baron Bomburst (Marc Kudisch) and his baroness (Maxwell). These two villains rule over the country of Vulgaria, which is menaced by a Childcatcher. (In that role, Kevin Cahoon wears terrific make-up supervised by Angelina Avallone.) Potts's quintet is chased by two comic villains, Goran (Chip Zien) and Boris (Robert Sella), masquerading as Englishmen to no comic effect stateside.
While the heavies are called Vulgarians, it's the show itself that looks and feels vulgar. (Anthony Ward designed the garish scenery and costumes, Mark Henderson the lighting.) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang joins a list of musicals put together by people who don't seem to care for quality, only for commercial potential. For example, no one seems to have noticed that a large percentage of the songs' lyrics are unintelligible. (Andrew Bruce, the sound designer, has muffed the most crucial part of his job.) So here we have a show that will cost a family of four as much as $405 to attend, yet much of it is difficult or impossible to comprehend.
In theory, this situation is inexcusable; in practice, it may be something of a blessing in disguise. Brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman supplied the score after apparently losing the gift for crafting snappy, happy songs that they evidenced in Mary Poppins. Some of the tunes are so gooey that patrons may need to wash their hands during the intermission. For instance, how does one react to lyrics like "Truly Scrumptious, you're truly, truly scrumptious" as sung by two treacly kids? Perhaps there is a method to sound designer Bruce's blurring of the words. (By the way, the show includes some new songs not to be found in the movie, among them "Teamwork," "Act English," and "The Bombie Samba.")
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is further unlikable in that it makes some first-rate performers appear third-rate or worse. Raúl Esparza sings the pretty-enough "Hushabye Mountain" in that gorgeous baritone of his and dances Gillian Lynne's energetic "Me Ol' Bamboo" choreography like a dervish, but he's neutered throughout most of the action. Erin Dilly does Kristin Chenoweth duty as Truly Scrumptious. Thank heaven, she knows enough not to be cloying. If you weren't aware that Philip Bosco, Robert Sella, Chip Zien and Marc Kudisch have been hilarious in previous comic roles, you'd be in despair over their limited skills as displayed in Chitty. They get no help from director Adrian Noble, who not too long ago ran the Royal Shakespeare Company and now looks like one of those former theater-company heads who built up his CV solely to land high-paying assignments helming musicals.
The show includes an icky duet titled "Chu-Chi Face," sung by the baron and baroness. (One hopes that Kudisch and Maxwell are paid handsomely to get through it eight times a week.) The number begins with the lyrics "You're my little chu-chi face / My koochie koochie woochie little chu-chi face / Every time I look at you, I sigh" -- and then it gets worse. In 1913, Irving Berlin -- one of the myriad Broadway songwriters who are spinning in their graves right now -- wrote a number called "Snookey Ookums," which goes in part: "All night long he calls her Snookey Ookums, all night long the neighbors shout, 'Cut it out! Cut it out! Cut it out!' " You may find yourself wanting to shout the same repeated phrase to the battalion of opportunists behind Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.