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It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's...a Car!

Notes on the Chitty experience, Spamalot without Tim Curry, and Pamela Warrick-Smith's comeback at Helen's Hideaway Room. logo
Jan Maxwell and Marc Kudisch in
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The old musical theater chestnut that no one ever goes home humming the scenery is proven false by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There's plenty of singing and dancing in the show, but trust us: When you're leaving the theater, you'll be talking about the car -- and humming its theme song. As theater special effects go, we've come a long way from the over-hyped helicopter in Miss Saigon and the crashing chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera. The car is [expletive deleted] amazing! It truly looks like its flying. Kudos to set designer Anthony Ward, who should have his name changed to Anthony Award.

And now for the rest of the production. Chitty is designed to appeal to young children. It does also make a modest attempt to pull in adults who have fond memories of the original movie; there are some vaguely adult musical comedy moments that cut the saccharine, but this show isn't really about anything except the car. It doesn't resonate with serious themes in the way that such family shows as Peter Pan and The Sound of Music do. However, in its limited way, Chitty is about theatrical magic. We can't imagine a child not being thunderstruck by the spectacle of that car flying up and over the audience. Maybe -- just maybe -- some kids in that audience will be so enthralled by the magic of theater that they'll come back to see better, richer shows.

Chitty's producers are certainly intent upon selling the car to the audience, but they have gone the extra mile and filled the cast with a Cadillac fleet of entertainers. Raúl Esparza's explosive talents may not be on full display as this show's (human) star, but he sings and acts with great flair -- and who knew he could dance so well? Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell set off theatrical fireworks whenever they are on stage: Kudisch's playfully evil Baron Bomburst is a hilariously spoiled adult child, while Maxwell as his wife simply drips with comic attitude. Kevin Cahoon is deliciously creepy as the Childcatcher. Chitty also features one of New York's greatest veteran actors, Philip Bosco, not to mention the always-delightful Chip Zien and Robert Sella. What a wealth of talent -- and none of them have enough to do!

Adrian Noble is credited with having directed the show, but it doesn't feel so much directed as built. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is what it is: a fancy car with a lot of bells and whistles that are otherwise known as actors.


A Few Words About Spamalot

We went back to see Spamalot on a night when Tim Curry was out sick. His standby, John Bolton, took over the role of King Arthur and didn't do a single thing wrong. But seeing another actor in the part demonstrated how valuable Curry is to the production; his comically imposing presence and supercilious attitude provide the springboard for the show's humor. Simply put, he's just the sort of ideal straight man that this zany musical requires.

Spamalot is actually better the second time you see it. Sure, the surprise is gone, but you're sure to notice many gags that you missed the first time around. Everything cooks in this show: colorful and crazy costumes, fun sets, wildly imaginative direction, and a cast to die for. Get your tickets now -- if you can!


Sing Along With Pamela Warrick-Smith

Like a Phoenix Rising is the title of Pamela Warrick-Smith's show at The Hideaway Room at Helen's. It's also the title of a gospel song in the program, and it refers to fact that this performer is hereby making a comeback.

Offering an uneasy mix of gospel and down-and-dirty blues, Warrick-Smith seems stiff and formal on stage. Call it rust. She performs some songs a cappella, others with a guitar. For the last half of the show, she's accompanied on piano by her gifted musical director, Bobby Peaco. Too often, she has the audience double as her backup singers, urging us to join in as many as half a dozen numbers. It's one thing to get patrons involved in your show and quite another to have them perform a great deal of it with you; Warrrick-Smith went way overboard in this regard.

This is a very up-and-down kind of show. Some numbers work, such as an a cappella rendition of "Images" by Nina Simone, while others fall flat. But we were surprised and pleased to find that there's a Phil Ochs song in the program: "While I'm Here." It was well chosen as a number that fits the comeback theme, and it's also a terrific song in its own right (like so many that Ochs wrote). Warrick-Smith doesn't sing it nearly as well he did, but someone in cabaret should do a Phil Ochs show. It's long past overdue.

Warrick-Smith has a serviceable voice, a seriousness of purpose, and an intriguing history that's only hinted at in this show. Perhaps she will share more of it in her upcoming performances at Helen's on Tuesdays, May 10 and 17, at 9:30pm.


[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at [email protected].]

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