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'Chitty Chitty': That Infernal Combustion Engine

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

NEW YORK -- The needle in my head is stuck.

"Oh, you pretty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we love you" is playing in my mind over and over and over.

It's the unfortunate aftereffect of an evening with "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," the big, shiny and insipid new kids' show at the Hilton Theatre, with the car that flies and the actors hovering around it as if they were its worshipful pit crew. The production is very -- "And our pretty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang -- "

Please!

"Loves us, too!"

HELP!

The song, which first elbowed its way into popular consciousness in the 1968 "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" movie, is reprised several times in the stage version. This pretty much guarantees its infernal notes will attach themselves to some primitive portion of the brain stem, never to be expunged. I wondered, as I watched Raul Esparza and Philip Bosco and Erin Dilly feign exuberance in the floating car, what kind of Zenlike composure it would take to utter "chitty chitty" and "bang bang" hundreds of times a week without coming to despise the sound of your own voice.

"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is high-end children's theater. Its gizmo-centric design has been engineered to keep the little ones from squirming (although the attention of the 5-year-old behind me, whose mother had thoughtfully affixed bells to the shoes that he jangled with impunity all evening, seemed to wane). Parents looking for a costly way to spend a few hours with the young ones will doubtless convince themselves the money was not wasted. Some adults with warm memories of the film and Dick Van Dyke in the driver's seat may find their nostalgic reflex triggered on cue. But for anyone expecting more than gadgets and sugary songs, the production offers itty-bitty bang bang.

I can't bring myself to -- "High, low, anywhere we go" -- relate the -- "on Chitty Chitty we depend" -- details of -- "Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, our fine four-fendered friend!"

UNCLE!

"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," imported from London and recast with well-known Broadway actors, is visually striking. Anthony Ward's sets and costumes are handsome, and people and things are made to fly around the theater in novel ways. (One could do, however, without the airborne outhouse and Bosco trapped on the toilet.) One performance, too, is arresting, that of Jan Maxwell, playing a hilariously evil Baroness Bomburst. Her take on this haughty villain from Middle Europe is as broad -- and grand -- as the Danube.

Marc Kudisch, recently seen at Signature Theatre as Vincent van Gogh in Michael John LaChiusa's "The Highest Yellow," is just about Maxwell's demented equal. No one else is employed to advantageous effect, and especially not Esparza (Seurat in the Sondheim Celebration's "Sunday in the Park With George"). Esparza is an intense, brooding sort, not well suited to candy-coated production numbers or a warm-and-fuzzy role like Caractacus Potts, the whimsical inventor who falls for a woman by the name of -- wait for it -- Truly Scrumptious.

In spite of the goodies the musical promises for children, I'm not sure that a mechanical operation like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a useful way to introduce kids to the theater. To truly hook a child, a musical has to have a certifiably human heartbeat. In "Chitty Chitty" -- which will no doubt bang bang along blithely for quite some time -- all there is to fall in love with is a machine. The logical follow-up excursion is not another trip to Broadway. It's a visit to the Indy 500.

Children figure in another, more intriguing product of London theater that has made it to these shores. For this one, however, don't even think of taking the kids. Martin McDonagh's bizarre and unsettling "The Pillowman," a hit at the Royal National Theatre in 2003, has been mounted on Broadway with an American cast headed by Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum. John Crowley has been retained as director. The production at the Booth Theatre is more subdued, and thus not as harrowing or funny as the London version. Still, "The Pillowman" is unlike anything else on Broadway and remains a crackling and sublimely twisted night out.

McDonagh, an Anglo-Irish dramatist whose plays often blend domesticity and the macabre, embeds many of the terrors of childhood in this sprawling, ghoulish fairy tale. The framework is an interrogation cell in some police state, where a writer, Katurian (Crudup), is being investigated by a pair of detectives (Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek) for a series of child murders. It so happens that his unpublished stories describe with uncanny accuracy the recent killings of several boys and girls.

Katurian's Kafkaesque predicament is the hub from which McDonagh's themes radiate. The power of the storyteller, the bond between brothers, the cruel potential of adult control over a child, the horrors unleashed in the subconscious all fill the play's narrative nooks and crannies. Some of the creepiest interludes are performed in recesses above the stage, wonderfully rendered by Crowley and set designer Scott Pask. There, the stories of horrible crimes are brought to life in the disturbing, mournful fashion of the Brothers Grimm. At times the scenes are so violent and shocking they're funny.

Goldblum, Crudup and Ivanek all deliver commendably. Even finer is Michael Stuhlbarg, whose portrayal of Katurian's half-witted brother slips chillingly under the skin. The production is as unsparing and original as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is ersatz and formulaic. Take that, my fine four-fendered friend!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, book by Jeremy Sams. Directed by Adrian Noble. Sets and costumes, Anthony Ward; choreography, Gillian Lynne; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Andrew Bruce; orchestrations, Chris Walker; music director, Kristen Blodgette. With Kevin Cahoon, Frank Raiter, Chip Zien, Robert Sella. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. At Hilton Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St., New York. Call 212-307-4100 or visit http://www.chittythemusical.com/ .

The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by John Crowley. Sets and costumes, Scott Pask; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Paul Arditti; music, Paddy Cunneen. With Ted Koch, Virginia Louise Smith, Jesse Shane Bronstein, Madeleine Martin. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. At Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250 or visit http://www.telecharge.com/pillowman .

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