Kiddie tuner makes the big time

Children’s theater has just grown an adult-size budget. After playing since April ’02 on the West End, Ian Fleming’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” arrives on Broadway April 28 in a huge, gadget-filled, special effects-saturated $15 million production. Can tots make the 2004-05 season’s most expensive show fly into black-ink territory?

Director Adrian Noble quietly explains, “We prefer to call it a family show.”

His definition definitely doubles the potential audience for “Chitty,” whose weekly break-even is more than $600,000. That’s a mighty sum for a kiddie … er, family show.

The capitalization is similar to “Spamalot,” producer Frederick Zollo says.

“Chitty” has one big advantage over the Python show: It’s playing the cavernous Hilton Theater, where the gross potential comes to $1,224,682 — $300,000 more than “Spamalot” at the Shubert and $75,000 above “Wicked” at the Gershwin.

But potential can sometimes dwarf B.O. reality.

“Spamalot” currently plays to 100% capacity by appealing strictly to Broadway’s core aud: adults. So does “Wicked,” which has the added green icing of its tween aud.

“Chitty” is a musical of a more primary color. It should do boffo during holiday and summer sessions when the kids are out of school. (A good omen: During the last week of spring break — March 28-April 3 — “Chitty” grossed a spectacular $864,436 for only seven previews.)

But are there enough parents willing to shell out up to $100 a ducat to see a show that may enchant their kids but leave them wishing they’d paid for a babysitter and seen Billy Crystal or Denzel Washington instead? After all, “Chitty” the 2005 tuner is not “Chitty” the 1968 movie, which can be rented at Blockbuster for $4.

But therein may lie much of its success. Zollo believes “Chitty” will experience the “Mary Poppins” effect. “Adults who were young when the movie came out want to see it,” he says. (Both tuners feature songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.)

Although “Chitty” matinees look to be more than 50% kids, evenings are skewing 75% adult in previews. And unlike “Little Women,” which repels little boys, “Chitty” has been designed to attract both sexes, despite the show’s rampant autophilia. Credit there may go to lead producer Barbara Broccoli, who has had a strong hand in casting that other Ian Fleming franchise, the James Bond films. (“It was her idea to put Judi Dench in the M role,” says Zollo.)

The Broccoli touch on “Chitty” has Baron Bomburst (Marc Kudisch) playing with dolls, and Truly Scrumptious (Erin Dilly) repairing her own motorcycle and fending off the Childcatcher with a shotgun.

$100 a kid

But the problem remains: $100 a kid. So far, there are no plans to offer age-specific discounts. “In London, we introduced a program where children can bring adults for free,” Zollo says. “We’ll see how the show lands here.”

The Broadway production has been made more child-friendly. “It’s a quarter-hour shorter. We’ve also upped the ante with the tyrants, who are much more vivid here,” says Noble.

And of course, the special effects have been pumped up. “There’s a bit more,” the director admits. “Certainly the car flies higher and farther out over the audience.”

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