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The car drives the musical

London's wildly popular 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' is borne up by a flying auto and nostalgia-fueled audiences.

November 24, 2002|Robin Rauzi | Special to The Times

London — A very un-British thing happens during the finale of the West End musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Everyone in the London Palladium stands up and, with no discernible prompting from the stage, begins to clap in time and sing: "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we love you!"

"It happened from the very first preview," said Nichola McAuliffe, who plays the wicked Baroness Bomburst in this $10-million adaptation of the 1968 movie. "We assumed it was a lot of Americans."

Nope, not yet. Right now it's largely the British, who, in a climate of depressed international tourism, made the upbeat and flashy "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" a box-office record breaker at the 2,300-seat Palladium, where it's been playing to full houses since opening in April. It's probably only a matter of time until "Chitty" -- the story of a flying car and its caretakers -- turns its red-and-gold wings toward Broadway.

Though a stage version of a story about a flying car might seem an unlikely choice, the fusion of spectacle and nostalgia was a powerful draw. "Chitty" has sold more tickets in advance of its opening than any other show in West End history, according to its producers.

Singer Michael Ball, who created the role of Marius in "Les Miserables" but works mostly in concert settings, stars as Caractacus Potts. Also in the West End cast are Olivier Award winners Anton Rogers as Grandpa Potts and Edward Petherbridge as the Toymaker and Brian Blessed as Baron Bomburst. The Childcatcher was originated by Richard O'Brien of "Rocky Horror Show" fame and is being played through Dec. 7 by Paul O'Grady, who is perhaps better known as his drag alter ego Lily Savage.

When reviews came in, they were mixed, though generally good for many critics not known for their kindness toward musical comedies. Alistair Macaulay of the Financial Times actually kicked off his review, "I am bewildered by how much I love the new stage version of 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' " though it struck the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer as "a show with a big budget where its heart should be."

But they all agreed on one thing: the car. The car soars.

Adventure and whimsy

The film, which starred Dick Van Dyke as goofy inventor Caractacus Potts, has proven remarkably durable, despite an undeniable weirdness and a roster of not particularly memorable songs. The original story came from Ian Fleming, who wrote it for his son. Cubby Broccoli, who had acquired the rights to Fleming's 14 James Bond novels as well as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," took a break from the spy film series to produce the film musical.

"How on Earth Cubby Broccoli saw in that novel that it would make a great musical I'll never know," said Adrian Noble, who directed the London production. "He brought Roald Dahl on board, which I've always thought was a really inspired piece of producing."

Dahl would infuse the "Chitty" movie with the same qualities found in his own work, most prominently "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": children on a fantastic adventure, whimsical machines and disturbingly dark overtones. The villains, Baron and Baroness Bomburst, rule the fictional European country Vulgaria, where they have outlawed children and have them rounded up nightly by their sinister henchman, the Childcatcher.

Jeremy Sams, who was commissioned by the Broccolis to adapt the movie into a stage musical in the late 1990s, remembered being struck by the rawness of that allegory when he watched the film again.

"It's interesting how those Holocaust overtones in the early '60s were totally undigested, when people were still alive who went through it but weren't writing or talking about it.... It was just absolutely in the zeitgeist. They might not have even noticed. And it's really horrible, that Childcatcher. He doesn't say he kills the children, but he makes them disappear."

Overlying the whole adventure of finding, fixing and flying "our fine four-fendered friend" are melodies by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman -- the Oscar-winning songwriters behind "Mary Poppins" and one of the most widely translated songs on Earth, "It's a Small World (After All)." The Sherman brothers also wrote songs for many of Walt Disney's best-known children's films of the 1960s, including "The Jungle Book."

To see the fusion of these elements, consider Caractacus' love interest. Her name is absolute Ian Fleming: Truly Scrumptious. Her family owns an elaborate candy factory (ahem, Roald Dahl), and she leads the ensemble in a relentlessly upbeat Sherman Brothers anthem to the candy stick flute. ("A bonbon to blow on at last has been found!")

"The original is a very strange film. I think they were all on drugs," Sams said. "It's astonishing. Psychedelic. It's Roald Dahl. Questions that one asks about story were not asked in any way. Things just happened, and then if they were too incredible, they just became dream sequences."

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