That fantasmagorical flying machine steals our hearts in this bright and breezy clap-along family fare.
Wearing its heart on its sleeve, the musical blends catchy tunes, terrific production values and a wonderful cast for a sit-back-and-enjoy-it evening of charming fun.
In 1964, James Bond author Ian Fleming turned his penchant for spies and inventions to a children’s novel. The story soared to life in the beloved 1968 musical film, complemented by the infectious, joyful songs of the Richard and Robert Sherman, who have written further songs for the stage production.
While Chitty’s London premiere and subsequent Broadway season preceded the stage adaption of that other great Sherman Brothers movie musical, the Australian tour has the distinct advantage of following Mary Poppins. The inbuilt audience, hungry for more of the same, will surely not be disappointed with Chitty. Parents and grandparents will be hit with waves of nostalgia while children will marvel at the wondrous spectacle. My eight year old nephew Thomas, keen to discover how the car flew, decreed at interval: “there are no wires, it’s just magic.”
Unlike most franchised productions, which arrive on our shores in cookie-cutter stagings, Chitty has been directed by Rodger Hodgman and choreographed by Dana Jolly. A noted Sondheim director, Hodgman has none of the depth or subtext to mine here. He certainly keeps energy high, however, and has elicited a range of comic performances from his cast, with styles ranging from vaudeville to physical shtick.
The story is told in the broadest of strokes, with the Vulgarian characters expanded to appear throughout the show, rather than just in Caractacus’ imaginative tale for his children. If there is a misstep in the narrative, it is the act two disappearance of Chitty for all but the final few minutes. Even Caractacus, who appears throughout act one, is out of sight for much of the second half.
Impressive as Chitty herself is, the rest of the production is equally attractive, with British designer Anthony Ward’s eye-popping sets and costumes looking absolutely superb in Her Majesty’s.
Opera and concert star David Hobson makes his music theatre debut, and proves to be a top notch leading man. Although perhaps a little tall and handsome for the shy and eccentric Caractacus Potts, Hobson captures the requisite zany sparkle and sings the role beautifully, particularly the lullaby “Hushabye Mountain.” Hobson’s dancing is also surprisingly good (better than London’s Michael Ball and Broadway’s Raul Esparza), and the effervescent “Me Ol’ Bamboo” sees him busting moves he surely did not pick up in La Boheme.
Rachael Beck again proves her supreme value as a leading lady of music theatre, giving a charming, highly polished performance as the headstrong Truly Scrumptious. Beck sings beautifully, the sound of her lovely soprano a sufficient reason to include the score’s dullest song “Lovely, Lonely Man.”
Beau Woodbridge and Lucille Le Meledo gave delightfully assured performances as Jeremy and Jemima Potts on opening night. The pair sang ever so sweetly, and appeared entirely convincing as brother and sister. Veteran performer Peter Carroll effortlessly captures the bluff and blunder of the irascible Grandpa Potts.
Jennifer Vuletic, seen far too rarely on the music theatre mainstage, plays to the back of the grand circle as the kooky, kinky Baroness Bomburst. In costumes to die for, Vuletic looks superb and displays her flair for physical comedy to great effect. Alan Brough is a neat foil for Vuletic as the infantile tyrant Baron Bomburst. I can’t explain why “Chu-chi Face” is one of all time favourite musical songs, it just is. Rounding out the comic performances are George Kapiniaris and Todd Goddard as the bumbling spies Goran and Boris. Their vaudevillian presentation of “Act English” was a hoot.
Tyler Coppin is sufficiently sinister as the insidious Childcatcher. Phillip Gould is all warmth as the kindhearted Toymaker. Tony Farrell shines in an early cameo as Lord Scrumptious.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne to Sunday 17 March 2013.
This review written for Theatre People 3 February 2013.