The second half of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang takes place in an imaginary country called Vulgaria, but no travel is involved; the perpetrators’ minds and hearts have been there from the beginning. It’s unlikely that there was ever an entertainment for children as loud, incoherent, and clumsily vapid as this. Having passed my own childhood before Ian Fleming’s book came out, I have no idea if the eyesore at the newly rebaptized Hilton Theatre (formerly under different corporate sponsorship) bears any resemblance to Fleming’s work or to the popular 1968 movie version of it. I hope not; I would hate to think that badly of Ian Fleming, or even of 1968.
Aside from Fleming, whose name appears in very tiny type above the title, and the Sherman Brothers, whose songs are taken over from the movie, no one is actually credited with having written this version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It has been “adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams from the MGM/United Artists motion picture,” with “additional material by Ivan Menchell.” Presumably everyone hoped that all blame would be heaped on the screenwriters, who go unnamed in the program. (They were Roald Dahl and the film’s director, Ken Hughes.) Well, somebody deserves a lot of blame. Apart from the issue of what story one tells to children in the theater, the issue of how you tell that story is uppermost. In this regard, the Disney shows, however arguable their substance may be, win hands down over Chitty, almost none of which makes basic storytelling sense from one minute to the next, from premise to denouement. And its moral is, basically, that if you have a magical car that can fly and shoot down all enemies, you never need to worry about a thing. It sounds like something invented by the Pentagon for its annual budget application.
Technology is central to Chitty. Apart from the titular flying car itself, which gets the star entrance and the star bow in the curtain call, there is some sort of moving vehicle or loud explosion in every scene. The human characters—a mix of stock types from Empire-era British humor, Bond-ish fantasy figures (like a heroine named Truly Scrumptious), and stale leftovers from fairy tales and Ruritanian romances—don’t stand a chance, especially in the Hilton’s barnlike space, against the rowdy effects. The epically bad sound design, by Andrew Bruce, magnifies most of the dialogue and virtually all of the lyrics into echo-chamber rhubarb. To take children to Chitty is to teach them not only that human stories have no coherence, but that human individuals have no significance. It says something about Chitty that the most intimate and charming moment in it, which is also its one musically appealing moment, comes when Erin Dilly, as the heroine, is compelled to impersonate a mechanical doll. (In fairness to Fleming, I have to admit that the existence of a real person named Erin Dilly justifies naming a character Truly Scrumptious.)
The Sherman Brothers specialized in songs that were memorably annoying, not so much catchy as calculated to stick in your brain, with their doggedly square rhythms and frequent repeated phrases. They sound like the songs kids sing, or used to, on the bus to camp, only without the spontaneity; even at their best (as in Mary Poppins) they have the feel of conscious imitations, synthetic approaches to fun instead of the real thing. They don’t, particularly, have any organic relation to the bumpily told story of how the widowed inventor Caractacus Potts and his two kids, with the help of Truly Scrumptious, rescue his father and their flying car from the wicked Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria, whose Baroness hates all children, and so employs a Child Catcher to remove them from the streets. This is supposed to be a dark, scary thrill, and if Disney were animating it, probably would be. Against the show’s mix of incoherence and massive technology, it hardly arouses a twinge. Even the Vulgarian kids hiding out in the sewers (courtesy of Les Miz?) don’t give it much of a thought, once they have a nice whompy Sherman Brothers march in which to screech their off-key pipes out.
Vulgaria’s other contribution to dramatic tension is a pair of spies, apparently modeled on Bullwinkle’s Boris and Natasha. Chip Zien and Robert Sella (the latter in the Natasha wig) eke a few meek laughs out of their arid material. Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell, as the Bombursts, manage to be diverting in material even more laborious, and Frank Raiter handles the tiny role of the Toymaker, whom I keep wanting to call Gepetto, with finesse. That’s about as far as the praise goes. Raul Esparza, a capable singing actor but no song-and-dance man, is charismaless as Caractacus, and Philip Bosco, as his Colonel Blimp-ish father, makes only a wan imitation of a true music-hall comic—perfect casting for this wan, inchoate imitation of a show.