Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Stop the Presses! Raul Esparza Smiles on Stage!
Yeah, yeah, I know... The car flies. I think we all saw that one coming.
But the truly remarkable and unprecedented special effect to be enjoyed from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang occurs much earlier in the evening. About a minute or so after the overture, which, by the way, required roughly four measures before the audience started the rhythmic clapping, Raul Esparza makes his first entrance as inventor Caractacus Potts. At first he's rather occupied doing whatever it is inventors do, but then about thirty seconds into his performance he lifts up his head and does something I dare say this versatile actor has most likely never done on stage before. He smiles.
Now mind you, I'm not talking about the kind of arrogant, dismissive smile he would sarcastically flash in Taboo. I don't mean the exasperated smile of frustration he'd let out in tick, tick... BOOM!. I mean a genuine, warm, welcoming smile that says "Hello, I'm a happy person and it's very nice to see you." For Raul Esparza, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang offers the opportunity to stretch as an actor.
It also, I suppose, offers the opportunity for him to earn a steady paycheck. When you're mostly known for playing obsessive artists, androgynous entertainers and socially annoying political activists, the plays you're cast in don't tend to run now and forever... or even a full season. Although he's a favorite among many regular theatre-goers, and certainly among many New York critics, perhaps his appearance in this show will help expose him to a new, more family oriented audience which will help him earn the kind of name-recognition power that will help sell tickets for his future projects. Maybe then we'll be treated to seeing a Broadway transfer of last season's mesmerizing, critically acclaimed but sparsely attended Public Theatre performance as a frustrated gay activist who furiously explodes with anger at the indifference of city politicians in dealing with the AIDS crisis. They'd just have to advertise it as "Raul (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) Esparza in The Normal Heart."
But don't be misled into believing Esparza's performance in this one is a spoonful of theatrical sugar. Sure, he displays paternal warmth and sincerity when called upon to do so, but that slightly maniacal glint in his eye often pops up, too. This is a Potts with a libido and even a dark sense of humor. At one point he breaks out into his Philip Sallon Taboo voice, and when Esparza and the boys grab their straw hats and canes to sing and dance "Me Ol' Bamboo", he does the number with a rock star intensity that makes you think less of music hall and more of Webster Hall.
Which actually fits the production very nicely, because Broadway's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is not a show to be lumped together with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King as magical family fun. Sure, it's got a flying car, lots of kids and bunch of dogs, but it also has sophomoric sexual humor, a chorus line of funny old people and campy Nazis. And if we've learned anything from Mel Brooks, it's that nothing spells success on Broadway like sophomoric sexual humor, a chorus line of funny old people and campy Nazis.
Ian Fleming, in his 1964 novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, never directly called them Nazis. No, they were from the fictional Bavarian country of Vulgaria, but the obvious parallels were there. This is a country determined to rid their land of a certain group of inhabitants. In this case it's children. There's a sinister fellow known as The Childcatcher, whose job it is to gather up children wherever they may be and, well, dispose of them in one manner or another. There is also a Duke of Vulgaria sending spies to England to discover the secret behind Pott's souped-up roadster (a stand-in for the atomic bomb), claiming once they know it, they can rule the world.
Jeremy Sans' book, adapted from Roald Dalh's screenplay for the 1968 movie version, hovers somewhere on the border between wholesome family adventure and trashy adult fun. Director Adrian Noble has assembled an impressive assortment of accomplished New York actors, many of whom are accustomed to doing quite meatier material, and has sort of let them loose to play out their roles with a downtown drag-show sensibility. Marc Kudisch, who a month ago thrilled a sold-out house at Town Hall singing Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Soliloquy", those eight minutes of musical theatre dramatic perfection from Carousel, is now prancing around the stage as the evil baron clutching his beloved teddy bear and singing, "(You're My Little) Chu-Chi Face." It's a little odd, but great fun when done with Kudisch's usual impeccable comic timing. Also great fun is Jan Maxwell as the baroness. Last seen on Broadway winning award nominations for her work in the terrorism drama Sixteen Wounded, Maxwell now sings delightfully loud and off-key when she's not delivering lines with the driest deadpan since Tallulah's glory days. Her best laughs come when she trails off her sentences like she's suddenly realized what she's contractually obligated to do eight times a week.
As a pair of Vulgarian spies, Chip Zien and Robert Sella are a well-oiled dialect comic team, similar to vaudeville's Weber and Fields. Their crisp, rapid-fire teamwork is hilarious, even if their material is sadly unfunny. On the subtler side is Erin Dilly, who habitually injects unexpectedly sly humor into her ingenue roles, as Truly Scrumptious, the maternal character with the Bond Girl name.
Playing fairly straight is the extraordinary stage actor Philip Bosco, who would be even more enjoyable as the doddering grandfather if he was given something the least bit funny to do or say. Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow do fine jobs as the Potts kids, singing and speaking in those high-pitched English accents we all love so much.
You would think that the talented Kevin Cahoon would be a blast with a juicy role like The Childcatcher, but under gobs of masking and makeup, the poor fellow doesn't seem capable of wearing anything more than a blank expression. A role that could be scary, creepy, funny and so much more in the hands of this usually abundantly interesting actor remains simply, just there.
The Sherman Brothers (Richard M. and Robert B.) penned the music and lyrics to some wonderful film scores like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. This isn't one of them. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's tunes are more or less harmless and serviceable. The Oscar-nominated title song, with the same kind of repetitive words and melody as that other Sherman Brother's classic, "It's a Small World, After All", is reprised four times after its initial singing, including an oddly-titled version called "Chitty Prayer".
What the score lacks in humor, fun and imagination can be found in Anthony Ward's exceptionally wild and wacky set and costume designs.
While leaving the theatre, my guest overhead a grown-up asking a little boy if he liked the show. The kid replied that he liked the dogs and the flying car. I imagine this may be the case with many of the younger set, because the best of Broadway's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seems more aimed toward a glammed-up West Village midnight audience. Heck, the male kissing in this one is much more explicit than in La Cage aux Folles.