Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
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Flying High in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

By Libby Slate

When Ian Fleming's son Caspar was small, he made a special request of his father, whose books about James Bond, aka secret agent 007, always included exploits in exotic, gadget-filled cars.

"Why don't you write me a story," the boy asked, "with a car I'd like?"

"Would you like a flying car?" Fleming responded.

And thus was born Fleming's sole children's effort, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the tales of eccentric English inventor Caractacus Potts, his children Jeremy and Jemima and their adventures with a junked race car that, when refurbished by Potts, can fly and float. Published as three stories in 1964 and 1965, Chitty was adapted as a film in 1968, starring Dick Van Dyke as the widowed Potts and Sally Ann Howes as his love interest Truly Scrumptious, daughter of a candy maker. Written in part by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and featuring songs by the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins), the film captivated audiences and snagged an Oscar® nomination for the catchy title tune.

In 2002, a stage musical based on the film opened in London's West End, setting audience attendance records before migrating to Broadway in 2005, where it was nominated for five Tony® Awards. The national touring version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang comes to the Center July 7–19.

As in the film, the car is the stage adaptation's centerpiece, a magical contraption with green and purple wings that first takes off at the end of Act One against a starlit night sky. "We get to see the audience when the car flies every night," says Steve Wilson, who stars as Potts opposite Kelly McCormick as Truly. "To a person, jaws drop and eyes are shiny. You see them wondering, 'Oh my gosh! How are they doing that?'"

How are they doing that? "We're sworn to secrecy," he says with a laugh.

The car isn't the only highlight, of course. Sets display inventor Potts' oversized gadgets and gears and a sparkling carnival playland, and there are showstopping production numbers, such as "Toot Sweets," named for the candy creation Potts hopes to sell to Truly's father, and "Bombie Samba," a preview of a birthday celebration planned by the villainous Baroness of Vulgaria for her husband.

Yes, even in the realm of candyland and flying cars, there are villains: the Baron and Baroness of Vulgaria, who have sent spies to England to bring back Chitty—which in its better race-car days had defeated the Vulgarians—and who hate children to boot, dispatching the Childcatcher to round them up.

The creepy Childcatcher and his capture of Jeremy and Jemima "is another iconic part of the story," says Wilson, who previously appeared at the Center in Sweet Charity. "You want people to enjoy being scared, as opposed to actually having them be scared; I've yet to hear one child burst into tears or wail, 'Mommy, I want to go home.'"

The original stage production rearranged scenes from the movie and added four new songs. The touring version "has been tightened and focused. The book is sharper," says Richard M. Sherman, who wrote the songs with brother Robert B. Sherman. "I'm very, very, happy with it."

One song for the stage version, "Teamwork," came about during a meeting with the original production's producers, director and book author. "I said, 'It takes teamwork to make a dream work,' and Bob said, 'That's a title,'" Sherman recalls. "Teamwork" became the anthem for Potts' encouraging the children of Vulgaria, who live hidden in sewers, to fight for their freedom. "It's very important to have a stirring moment," Sherman says.

Click here to download the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang coloring book page

In these days of economic crisis and electronics wizardry, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang still captures the hearts of audiences of all ages. "Our show is an opportunity to come to the theater and bring anyone you want—kids, parents—turn down the lights and be reminded that life can be very simple," Wilson says. "You can get through it with teamwork and your loved ones, and follow your dreams. It's not hokey. These are timeless messages. You can never be reminded too much of that."

Libby Slate is a Los Angeles-based writer who frequently covers the performing arts.

Photos by Ian Ibbetson

SEGERSTROM HALL
Dates: July 7–19, 2009
Tickets: $70–$20
For tickets and information, visit ocpac.org or call 714.556.2787.
Group sales: 714.755.0236

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