As a kid, it was always a treat to catch the 1968 movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on TV—once a year, or so. (This was long before VCRs or DVDs.) Between primetime showings, I kept the vinyl record of the soundtrack in heavy rotation on my parents’ stereo, along with Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and other classics of the era.
In fact, I thoroughly loved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang long before I recognized the name of its author, Ian Fleming, and more than a decade before I was introduced to his most famous creation, James Bond. Looking back, the similarities between this fantastical musical and the 007 franchise are obvious—both feature a fascination with amazing cars, gadgets of all kinds, and over-the-top villains with an ideology that threatens the free world. And it wouldn’t be Ian Fleming if the female love interest didn’t have a humorous name worthy of a Restoration comedy.
Revisiting the infectious songs and the high points of the movie through First Stage Milwaukee’s current musical for young audiences was a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. In brief, here are five reasons I would recommend making the trek east to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before it closes November 5th.
The Car, Part 1. The first scene of FSM’s exuberant production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a celebration of imagination as the Potts children, Jeremiah and Jemima, engage in a high-speed race in a junk yard, pretending to drive the rusty remains of a once-famous racecar. Another group of children patch together a steering wheel and their own daydreams to challenge the dented favorite. The vehicles exist in their eyes, and in the verses of “This Great Car,” with no special effects and no Bond-esque transformations, just imaginations run wild. And through the young cast’s performances, the audience can see the thrilling race clearly.
The Car, Part 2. The souped-up, fully equipped, practically magical car that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang becomes under the restorative hand of inventor and tinkerer Caractacus Potts (Jackson Evans) is glorious. Its fresh coat of silver paint shines and its headlights come to life on cue. But more delightful is the flight of fancy the car embarks on in the audience’s mind. We see actors manipulating the wooden car’s wings. We see another actor pushing it around the relatively small stage. But we choose to believe in its super powers.
I’ve always admired the fact that FSM Artistic Director Jeff Frank isn’t afraid to suggest amazing action on stage and let viewers fill in their own magic. In addition to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s aerial tricks, this production features a puppet version of a zeppelin in flight— which is much more effective than any life-size set piece or video projection. .
The Music. As bizarre as the story is, as odd as the movie is, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang actually has a lovely score. The FSM cast does an admirable job of bringing some of the best songs from the film to life on stage. Evans’s beautiful, clear voice shines, especially in the lullaby “Hushabye Mountain” as he softly urges his children to sleep. The kids (Paige Landrum as Jemima and Jack Trettin as Jeremy in the Fantabulous cast) also turn in strong performances in their sweet duet celebrating their new friend “Truly Scrumptious.” As the cantankerous grandfather forever stuck in the Boer War, Robert Spencer also infuses “Posh” and “The Roses of Success,” with his characteristic charm. And by intermission, many people in my section were humming the ubiquitous title song. (It’s going through your head right now, isn’t it?)
It’s a Character Actor’s Playground. In supporting parts, local treasures Drew Brhel and the aforementioned Spencer bring sly smiles, double takes, evil smirks, and hijinks aplenty to the roles as the spoiled man-child Baron of Vulgaria (Brhel) and the eccentric old soldier Grandpa Potts (Spencer). They each light up the stage with bluster and their own distinct brand of panache.
The Toys that Come to Life. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the show, the Toymaker (an earnest Rick Pendzich) presents his latest masterpiece to the Baron for his birthday—two life-size dolls that sing and dance when “wound with a key.” Filled with whimsy and accomplished choreography, the “Doll on the Music Box” duet is simply charming. A disguised Truly Scrumptious (Malkia Stampley) and Caractacus successfully carry off the ruse as a diversion, so the banished children of Vulgaria can be liberated from the rule of the cruel Baron and Baroness at last.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang runs for the next two weekends in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee. For tickets or more information, visit firststage.org.