When a big-budget special-effects Broadway musical with a huge cast is streamlined for the road, that usually indicates a producer’s code for a watered-down, pallid version of the original. But the first national tour of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” that kicked off in Fort Lauderdale this week remains a lush, inventive fairy tale that will dazzle audiences which don’t compare it with the London or New York versions. Yes, the car still flies, not over the footlights as it did on Broadway, but impressively enough to thrill a jaded audience.
More importantly, director Ray Roderick has deftly reworked the show to bring out the emotional colors, pruning and overhauling the script as well as the direction. There is exuberant new choreography and new orchestrations for a snappy 13-piece pit. Most notably, imaginative lighting and projections make up for the scaled-back but still detailed sets, redolent of Rube Goldberg and Ruritania. The iconic images from the 1968 film remain, from the creepy child catcher towing a cage of children to the car soaring against a starry sky.
But the real strength in this production is everyone’s total buy-in to the story being told. Roderick’s earnest cast embraces this storybook Never-Never-Land without a trace of post-modern irony. At the same time, the sincere sweetness is carefully rationed to avoid diabetic coma, producing a family musical that will enthrall children and not embarrass or bore adults.
The show is based on Ian Fleming’s thin 1964 tale about a widowed inventor and his children who salvage a scrapped racing car in pre-war England and discover magical properties that take them on adventures. It birthed the beloved and much reworked film with songs by the Sherman brothers, an even-more reworked 2002 London musical that ran three years and finally the 2005 Broadway edition that lasted nine months with a cast of 50.
The current cast of 31 are all competent talents, especially affable Steve Wilson as the hapless inventor, who has a gawky charm as well as a fine singing voice in numbers like “Hushabye Mountain.” Kelly McCormick has little to do but smile as the English rose love interest, but she lives up to her name Truly Scrumptious. They get fine comic support from George Dvorsky as a childish baron, Elizabeth Ward Land as his sex-starved wife, and Dick Lumbard and Scott Cote as a vaudevillian Mutt and Jeff team of spies.
The production is missing the transporting magic Roderick aims for, but that may come later in the run. And that second act still seems like it’s hurtling along, ticking off scenes from the movie. Not surprisingly, some technical glitches need to be smoothed out, but the car performs like a trouper. Tour-stop crowds eager to be entertained will not be disappointed by the warmth flowing from the stage.