The car is the star in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the family friendly musical based on the 1968 film, which was adapted from the novel by James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Featuring songs by Richard and Robert Sherman (“Mary Poppins”), story and elements and characters by Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) and a talented cast and crew of Riverwalk Theatre, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is a technical marvel. But beyond the grand adventure promised by larger than life villains and a flying car, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is an emotionally vacuous show that never gets into gear.
Set in 1912, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” focuses on the Potts family; widower, father and inventor Caractacus (Ben Holzhausen), his father Grandpa Caractacus (Bob Purosky), and their two precocious yet charming kids Jeremy and Jemima (Phineas Reed and Isabella Edmonds-Hogan). In Caractacus’ workshop/garage sits the hull of a former threetime Grand Prix winning car used lovingly as a giant toy by the kids.
Ultimately, Caractacus refurbishes the car after raising funds to outbid a buyer, falls in love with confectionary company heir Truly Scrumptious (Sarah Hayner) and uses the car’s now magical properties to rescue his children and father from nefarious villains from the quasi-Eastern European country of Vulgaria.
Like “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” espouses the power of imagination and teamwork in children while peppering those messages with lavish song and dance numbers. Unlike “Mary Poppins,” there is no clear character evolution to tie the songs and loose plot threads together. The father begins and ends as a selfless single parent who encourages creativity in his children who themselves are model pre-pubescents. Without an emotional character arc to change even one character, the plot feels random and arbitrary.
That is not to discount the strong efforts of the cast. Holzhausen and Hayner have charming chemistry together while Reed and Edmonds-Hogan as the Potts children steal the show with their natural zest and charisma.
Greg Martin and Laura J. Croff gleefully chew the scenery as the Baron and Baroness Bomburst of Vulgaria, as do their dimwitted minions Boris and Goran played by Boris Nikolovski and Jimmy McCormick. The creepiest performance comes from Tim Edinger as the Childcatcher, a long nosed monster with a high pitched voice who skulks through the audience like a hungry cat.
The songs like “Me Ol’ Bamboo,” “Toot Sweets” and “Teamwork” feature playful choreography by Amanda Tollstam and are executed seamlessly by the large ensemble including an impressive group of youth actors. And the orchestra directed by Angie Constien-Schwab — although played through a single speaker and frequently overpowered by the cast — bring the classic songs like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” to life.
But the strongest elements in this production by far are technical, from Caractacus’ Rube Goldberg styled inventions built by David Schwab, the multilevel set that folds into itself like a doll house designed and built by Aja and J.J. Jenks and Bob Nees, to the properties designed by Jean Burk and first time director Brian Farnham. The reveal of the refurbished car is a showstopper that received applause Friday night. It lights up, it swivels and turns on a dime and the lighting and fog effects designed by Ted Daniel create the illusion of flight. It’s easy to see why the car is an object of love for the children and an object of lust for the villains.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” $24/$20 seniors/students/military/$14 children 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 2 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3 Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing riverwalktheatre.com (517) 482-5700