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Theater Review: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Katherine Mumma & Tamara Diamond
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

That percussive earworm going around town this week can be traced to the catchy title tune of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre’s new production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. WMUK's Gordon Bolar has this review.

This uplifting musical is filled with spectacle, singing and dancing and will no doubt be a holiday draw for families and audiences of all ages. Based on the 1968 film, the stage musical is the story of 1920’s fictional British inventor, Caracticus Potts (Dan Lafferty), and his flying floating racing car.

The plot thickens when Potts and family, including children Jeremy and Jemima, played by Jack Leskowski and Sanaa Olivacce-Shabazz, alternating with Marissa Toweson and Caleb Bildner, and love interest Truly Scrumptious (Maggie Paloucek), attempt to elude the Vulgarian operatives seeking to steal the airborne vehicle’s secret. Despite the storyline’s flight of fantasy, the production succeeds because it portrays the human relationships and emotions of Potts’ family in a believable manner.

Though at times eccentric, Dan Lafferty never allows the lead character to become silly or goofy. He delivers a convincing portrait of a widowed father’s bond with his children, through the moving lullaby, “Hushabye Mountain”.

In Act II, Maggie Paloucek’s Truly reveals the unabashedly serious nature of her feelings for Potts, and displays her desire to be a parent to his children with the engaging ballad “Lovely, Lonely Man.”

Credit Katherine Mumma
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
The famous flying, floating, racing car comes to life on the stage of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

The flipside of this warm emphasis on love, family and children is evident in the menacing movement and mannerisms of Childcatchers Jordan and Logan Awe, who slink through the Vulgarian landscape rounding up children for imprisonment. A lighter note is sounded in the frequent nefarious laughter that punctuates the commentary of bungling spies, Boris (Lou Price) and Goran (Gary Willoughby). They stalk Potts, family and vehicle relentlessly in thin disguise with mischievous intent.

Their orders come from the Vulgaria’s narcissistic dictators Baron and Baroness Bomburst (David Noyes and Donna Willoughby). This comic couple delivers a delightfully self-centered tribute to one another with “Chu-Chi Face”. The duo then follows it with the appealing Brazilian sway of “The Bombie Samba.”

Kathryn S. Williams’ choreography in these numbers is crisp, cleanly executed and reinforces character foibles as well as the story’s narrative.

Another song and dance number that stands out is “Me Ol’ Bamboo” in which Lafferty and ensemble deliver an effective music hall hat and cane routine.

Set against what initially appears to be a drab industrial-age background, the production is greatly enhanced through an appropriate and clever use of color.

David Kyhn’s scenic design includes a surrounding metal catwalk that comes alive and into focus with AnnMarie Miller’s lighting, Sara Tomaszewski’s bright costumes, and Stacy Bartell’s vivid and memorable properties. One example is in the confectionary, where lollipops and candy cane flutes paint a technicolor backdrop for Potts’ sales pitch to Lord Scrumptious with the number “Toot Sweets”. Several of Potts’ steampunk inspired mechanical creations are prevalent in this production. Rather than serving as mere curiosities or idle sources of amusement, however, these appealing set pieces are thankfully integral to the plot as well as the motivations of the characters.

Although the show is well-paced throughout, last Sunday’s matinee got off to a slow start due to what appeared to be a missed cue. In addition, some of the dialogue during the show’s opening sequence could have benefitted from more volume and attention to annunciation of a British dialect that was upon first hearing difficult for the audience to follow. These early audibility problems were momentary, however.

The show recovered quickly and gathered momentum with the help of an energetic ensemble in the early production numbers. Proper velocity was maintained until the anticipated lift off of the car was achieved in the Act I finale. Here Chitty Chitty Bang Bang soared as the remarkably engineered vehicle and its elated occupants took flight in body and in song, much to the delight of children in the audience.

The Civic deserves credit for making what could have been a difficult undertaking look easy, effortless, and fun. This enjoyable feat of levitation continues through December 9 in the Civic Auditorium.

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