“If you get to like them and understand them, if you are kind to them and don’t scratch their paint or bang their doors, if you fill them up and pump them up when they need it, if you keep them clean and polished and out of the rain and snow as much as possible, you will find, you MAY find, that they become almost like persons – MORE than just ordinary persons – MAGICAL PERSONS!!!”
So writes Ian Fleming (the same author that created James Bond) at the beginning of his classic 1964 book, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Magical Car.” This is a beguiling resurrection story of a car that was once a champion in European grand prix races before it crashed and burned and ended up as a hulk on the property of a sympathetic mechanic. Two of the local children, twins Jeremy and Jemima Potts, come to the car to play, pretending that they are driving her in the races again. Only these two children seem to have the eyes to see the diamond in the rough: the inner value and spirit of a champion that sleeps within what others regard as a hunk of junk.
The father of the twins is Caractacus Potts (his namesake was an ancient British tribal chieftain that fought against early Roman invasions of Britain). Caractacus, once an engineer in the Royal Navy, is now an impoverished inventor of zany gadgets. Like his children, Caractacus is able to see the potential of the old racing car and is persuaded to find a way to buy it before it is sold for scrap. The mechanical skills and the hard work of the inventor restore the car to its former glory (and more!). The new car is named “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” after the sound that its peculiar engine makes. The sentient machine becomes a member of the family and is the vehicle by which the little family is borne into adventure.
In 1968, the book was adapted into an MGM cinematic musical. The story line was altered, making Caractacus Potts a widower whose love interest becomes Truly Scrumptious, the heiress of a family that runs a prosperous candy factory. Truly’s fondness for the Potts children draws her into the adventure during which she and Caractacus fall in love.
Brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman penned the music for the movie. (The songwriting duo also did the music for “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “Charlotte's Web,” “The Aristocats” and much more.) Many of the title songs are so memorable and singable that it is no wonder that the film musical was adapted for the stage in 2002. The show embarked on a three-and-a-half-year run at the London Palladium.
Since its London revival, the musical has gone on to become a favorite of theaters large and small. And now “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” has landed in Tacoma as the Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s main stage holiday show. The TMP production opened Thanksgiving weekend and runs through Dec. 20.
The TMP cast does a bang-up job. Stephen Bucheit as Caractacus Potts brings warm, grainy tenor to the stage. Especially rich is Allyson Jacobs-Lake as Truly Scrumptious. Jacobs-Lake’s creamy, clear voice carries her portions of the music with flawless ease. The roll of Jemima Potts is split between two young actresses. I saw Summer Mays’ version of the character, which is a bright-eyed, show-stealer voiced with melodic confidence.
Other memorable performances are turned in by Dana Johnson as the funny, sultry Baroness Bomburst and by John Keeleher as Baron Bomburst. Gunnar Ray, as young Jeremy Potts, is stalwart in his role.
The production is sprinkled through with ribald humor, much of it provided by Michael Syverson and Brittany Henderson as the Vulgarian spies of the Vulgar Baron Bomburst. George McClure plays a delightful Grandpa Potts, who is also a source of comic relief.
Jake Atwood’s version of the evil Child Catcher rivals that seen in the original movie. With his exaggerated nose and black mask, he creeps and prances spider-like across the stage.
TMP’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is filled with colorful, dazzling moments: from the grand “Toot Sweet” dance in the candy factory to the exotic pizzazz of the “Bombie Samba.” I confess to having a special fondness for the lively Morris dance that accompanies “Me ‘Ol Bamboo.” Perhaps the most delicious scene is when Caractacus and Truly are presented to the Baron as toys and sing a duet comprised of a reprise of “Truly Scrumptious” interwoven with “Doll on a Music Box.”
Dismissed by many critics as childish, the songs in the show have the power to linger in the mind. The “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” title song brings a rush of celebration and delight for the mischievous personhood of the car itself. Truly’s solo performance of “Lovely, Lonely Man” is especially moving.
The stagecraft in the production is fantastic, often eliciting surprised laughter from the audience. The illusion of the car in motion, for example, is magically created by moving background scenery across the stage and having groups of the cast walk or jog backwards. The car and the multitude of props are colorful and zany. The Chitty car was built and designed by Bruce Haasl (Technical Director and Set Designer) and Dennis Kurtz (Master Carpenter).
The only negative criticism I have is that the production does not really manage to bring the car out as a character with a personality. It never quite manages to make the transition from prop to character. Neither does the car make the “chitty-chitty-bang-bang” sound that is supposed to be the source of its name.
The humor, the great music and the frequent changes of scenery, however, keep things bouncing along. Like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang herself, the show seems to take wing and fly. It is so engaging that it passes in a flash. If you don’t go to live shows, this is one that will show you what you’ve been missing.