Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 1968 MGM hit movie starring Dick Van Dyke, was officially my favorite film for several years when I was a kid. I'm not sure why, but I think it had something to do with the many super-cool elements of the story, including a "fantasmagorical" flying car, an inventor dad, a candy factory, the flying car, a mission to rescue kidnapped children from an evil kingdom named Vulgaria, the catchy score and the flying car.
Did I mention the flying car? My tastes were nothing if not simple.
So when I saw that the incomparable Seattle Children's Theatre was producing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as part of its 2015–16 lineup, my first thought was: "Will the car fly onstage?" When I told my 6-year-old son we were going to see Chitty Chitty , that was his exact question as well.
In other words, we had to see it.
And I am now here to tell you that the SCT version of Chitty Chitty has many, many more charms beyond that of a gleaming, 1914 Rolls-Royce that sprouts wings (though the car is absolutely captivating). These include exceptional acting and singing, quirky-hilarious characters, stunning sets and set changes — a magical junkyard becomes a candy factory becomes a beach with a full moon becomes an ocean becomes the kingdom of Vulgaria, and more.
The movie musical was based on the children’s book by Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame), then adapted for stage by Jeremy Sams. Seattle Children's Theatre's production opens with a multimedia-driven prequel: You see an exciting Grand Prix auto race, where a certain 1914 Rolls-Royce wins against the team from Vulgaria. Cut to the stage, where two motherless children, Jeremy and Jemima, are perched at the steering wheel of the junkyard remains of the automobile, pretending to race it to victory.
They are playing at Coggins Garage, where their inventor father, Caractacus Potts is searching for parts for his latest invention. Potts values imagination over practicality; his inventions incluce a breakfast maker and candies that double as whistles. His kids don't go to school, but the garage/junkyard/petrol station that is their playground is gold for children's imaginations.
Ah, but everything is about to change. A passerby decides he wants to buy the rusted former racing machine. The children are devastated. Their father promises to scrounge up the money and eventually does so by creating a flawed haircutting machine that is bought by a turkey farmer. He brings the car into his shop at their windmill home, and restores it to its former, gleaming glory, and then some.
But beware: Also on the trail of Chitty (for this is Chitty, of course) are Boris and Goran, two bumbling envoys from Vulgaria, who are on a mission to recover the car for the tyrants who lead Vulgaria, the toy-obsessed Baron of Bomburst and his child-hating Baroness. They mistakenly kidnap Grandpa in place of Caractacus (thinking he is the inventor), which draws the whole Potts family — plus Potts' love interest, candy heiress Truly Scrumptious — to Vulgaria, courtesy of Chitty's magical powers.
Can they rescue Grandpa, keep Chitty safe, and turn Vulgaria into a kingdom that welcomes children?
As one expects from SCT, the acting was, to a character, terrific, but we particularly enjoyed the slapstick characters of Boris and Goran and the over-the-top antics of the Baron (Richard Grey), who acted exactly like an adult toddler, except that he could also dance the samba; as well as Dane Stokinger as Caractacus Potts and Emily Cawley as Truly Scrumptious, who shined especially in the scene where they pretended to be dancing dolls to infiltrate Vulgaria (while singing exquisitely). The actors who played Jeremy and Jemima also turned in strong performances — nice to see children performing at the Children's Theatre.
The production takes a few welcome detours from the film: The one creepy element of the story is the Child Catcher character, whose job description is to rid Vulgaria of kids; in SCT's version it was performed by a woman. Messages such as the importance of teamwork and making mistakes were also even more highlighted ("There's magic in the wake of a fiasco," sings Grandpa when he's in Vulgaria, tasked with creating another Chitty). This provides useful takeaways for kids, amid the laughs and oohs and ahhhs.
And I have to give one more shout-out to the sets and costumes. From the lovely piles of junk in Coggins Garage to a country fair complete with a ferris wheel a beach scene, backed by a huge full moon and digitally created waves that wash up on shore, extraordinarily talented set designer Carey Wong outdid himself. The small stage at the Seattle Center becomes an enchanting version of Edwardian England.
Speaking of enchantment, what about that flying car? I won't tell stage secrets — you need to find out for yourself if it achieves lift-off or not — but suffice it to say that the small person next to me was thoroughly satsified with Chitty's locomotion.
Parents should know
As one expects from SCT, the production is as clean as a whistling piece of candy; the only scary element is the Child Catcher (which did frighten my son). SCT recommends for ages 6 and older; but younger kids who are familiar with the story and can sit for 90 minutes might enjoy it as well.
Find more information in the Active Audience Guide.
If you go ...
Where and when: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is playing at Seattle Children's Theatre's Eve Alvord Theater at Seattle Center through Dec. 27, 2015. Performances are on various days a week, with a number of matinee opportunities; there is a public ASL-interpreted performance on Dec. 5.
Tickets: $25 to $45 depending on the day of the show. Buy online.
Parking: There’s plenty of paid street and public parking available, although you may find it difficult to find parking close to the theater.
• The running time for the play is approximately one hour and 45 minutes, and it includes a 15-minute break. Preorder your snacks so you can collect them at intermission and avoid long lines; and if possible, use restrooms before the show starts, to avoid the rush at break time.
• The Eve Alvord Theater has a quiet room, in case you need to use it for your child.
• There are booster seats available for young viewers.
• The actors return after the play for a quick round of Q&A from the audience.