WEST VALLEY CITY — It is easy to sum up my impression of the Hale Centre Theatre production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: it’s all about the car. The actors, the choreography, the costumes, and even the script are all just window dressing for what is a pretty cool live special effect.
Staying true to its reputation for spectacle, the creative staff at the Hale have created a show that constantly had me guessing about the next new visual surprise. Whimsical machines, such as the breakfast machine and the candy manufacturer (from set designer Kacey Udy), smoke effects, and gorgeous lighting (designed by Spencer Brown) all create a live experience that will persist in many audience members’ memory for a long time. Few theaters in Utah could have given full justice to audience expectations for a floating (and later flying) car.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the spectacle is just a veneer that the technical staff have applied to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to cover a lackluster script (written by Jeremy Sams and Ray Roderick) and score (with music by Richard M. Sherman and lyrics by Robert B. Sherman). The play tells the story of the Potts family, which includes two children named Jeremy and Jamima, who enjoy playing on the rusted remains of an old race car. When someone is poised to buy the car for scrap metal, the children encourage their widower father, Caractacus, to purchase it instead. Caractacus must quickly earn the 30 shillings needed to purchase the car, but his efforts are complicated by his faulty inventions. Add in two spies from the fictional country of Vulgaria, and the story takes on a cartoonish intrigue that propels it into the second act.
David Smith plays Caractacus Potts, the frustrated inventor and loving father who buys Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Smith is certainly enthusiastic in all of his scenes, and he plays the role of parent with great sincerity (such as in the song “Hushabye Mountain” or when explaining to his children that he doesn’t have the money to buy the car). Smith is also wonderful to watch as he athletically executes the choreography in “Me Ol’ Bamboo.” Opposite Smith is Megan Lynn Heaps as Truly Scrumptious. Heaps plays the part well enough, but unfortunately the script doesn’t give her much to do. Often her character is tagging along behind Caractacus as he moves the story forward. The main purpose of Truly is to be a romantic interest for Caractacus.
Unfortunately, there was not much chemistry between Smith and Heaps. I don’t blame the performers for this, however. I have seen Smith play romantic leads successfully before in Crazy for You and The Drowsy Chaperone, and Heaps’s credits are too impressive for me to believe that playing a basic emotion like love is a challenge for her. Rather, I believe that the lack of chemistry between the two is a result of John J. Sweeney‘s direction. Judging by what I saw, Sweeney seemed more concerned about the literal and figurative mechanics of putting this production on the stage than he was about the show’s message, character development or relationships (such as the relationship between Caractacus and his father). During the entire show, the cast seemed more concerned with making it to the end of their song or scene than they were about storytelling. This left me feeling like the show was just an amalgamation of a bunch of disconnected scenes and that characters didn’t have much to do with each other.
I also disliked Sweeney’s treatment of the antagonists in the play. The Childcatcher (played by Anthony LeRoy Lovato) particularly drove me crazy as he minced around the stage. This undercut his credibility as a villain and made it difficult for me to put any serious credence into the conflict in the second act. The Baron and Baroness Bomburst (played by Kyle Olsen and Ali Bennett, respectively) were more acceptable as silly characters, however, because of their status as comic relief. But all three characters were a pitiful force that was so easily dispatched in the last scene that it robbed the previous two hours of any seriousness. Finally, all directors should take note that slow motion action/fight scenes never work on stage.
That being said, the performances from every actor were quite good, given the mediocre script and the diffused directing. Will Breinholt and Abigail Edwards are charming as Jeremy and Jamima Potts, and the way they beg for the new car is very familiar to anyone who has had a child ask them to buy them an expensive toy. Olsen and Bennett were also hilariously goofy as the Baron and Baroness, and they practically stole the show in the second act with “Chu Chi Face” and “Bombie Samba.” Unfortunately, neither song serves any purpose in advancing the plot.
Although I have complaints about the directing, the script, and the score, I just can’t ignore the fact that this production isn’t about those things. It’s about the car. And judged by that standard, the Hale staff has created a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that is worth seeing.