Inside the Hilton Theatre, director Adrian Noble welcomed the crowd to the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang "sneak peek," which included two scenes from the new musical as well as the chance to chat with a few of the show's stars. "Toot Sweets," which comes nearly midway through Act One, was first presented. In describing the scene director Noble said, "[This is the] moment when our inventor, Caractacus Potts [Esparza] has invented something that works. He thinks he has invented a sweet that works. This musical number shows him persuading the factory owner, Lord Scrumptious [Kenneth Kantor], and his daughter, Truly Scrumptious [Dilly], that this sweet is absolutely brilliant, and that he should take the sweet on board, manufacture it and make millions for poor old Caractacus Potts. It ends in a lovely celebration of that Toot Sweet."
Noble then introduced some of the creative team, including sound designer Andrew Bruce and composer-lyricists Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, who he called "the two most important people in this particular project, [who have] written the soundtrack to the childhoods of so many millions of people around the world."
Noble then brought dog trainer Bill Berloni onstage to speak about the special animals employed in the new musical. "In all the shows that I've worked with on Broadway," explained Berloni, "I've always rescued shelter dogs to work in shows. At the first day of rehearsal, Adrian explained to us that while there are spectacular parts of the show, it's really about a family coming together, and that's what the heart of the show is. On this assignment it's an unprecedented event, never have there been eight dogs in a Broadway show at one time. As I started collecting them, it was interesting how art imitated life because I had to create a family of dogs who not only lived together but worked together to be part of this wonderful event." And, one by one, Berloni brought these eight special dogs onto the stage: Harriet, Argyle, Lady, Barney, Patches, Fred, Bard and Sidney.
The title song, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," was then performed, although the spectacular car did not fly through the air as it does nightly at the Hilton Theatre. "She's a bit of a diva," joked Noble. "She's only contracted to do eight performances a week. But this is one of those occasions when what happens in the theatre is considerably more magical than what happens on celluloid in the movies. When this beautiful thing flies, it brings tears to your eyes."
Raúl Esparza, who plays wacky inventor Caractacus Potts, said that flying in the Chitty car each night feels a bit like experiencing an amusement park ride. "It's not Space Mountain," said the former Taboo star, "[but] it's a lot of fun. . . And, ultimately, that's what the show is — it's a show that's geared toward family [audiences], and it has a storybook quality to it, which people are really enjoying." Esparza had seen the film as a child, but a few years back, he watched the movie again and thought, "What a bizarre film. It's a truly weird, weird movie, and the show has that same schizophrenic quality. It's like a spy novel about World War II. As a kid, you don't pick up on any of that, and it turns out that there are all these World War II references going on that I hadn't even noticed — partly because it's written by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, who's a spy master."
Esparza added that the Sherman Brothers have made a few small changes to the score, including some rewrites on one of his Act Two songs. "They've been lovely — they're extraordinary men," Esparza said. "They wrote all the songs that I grew up on. I lived in Miami, and we used to go to Disney World every single year — not just the Disney songs from the movies but also the ones from the park are songs that I have known my whole life. I keep saying I feel like I'm going to the Magic Kingdom when the curtain goes up and the overture starts. That really is what it feels like."
Philip Bosco, on Broadway earlier this season in the hit revival of Twelve Angry Men, plays Grandpa Potts, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang marks the veteran actor's first Broadway musical since the 1976 revival of The Threepenny Opera.
"I was asked to meet Adrian Noble, whom I had never met," recalled Bosco. "I said, 'Why?' and [my agent] said, 'Well, he's doing a musical.' And I said, 'Well, I don't do musicals.' He said, 'Go meet him. If nothing comes of it, at least he will have met you and will know you.' So I did, thinking that it would just be a nice meeting. But, apparently, they called my agent sometime later and said that they were talking to one other person — I think it was Dick Van Dyke [who played Caractacus Potts in the film], but for whatever reason that didn't work out — and they said, 'It's yours if you want it.' I resisted it because I don't sing or dance, and my agent finally persuaded me that they were going to be very considerate of my inability to do these things, and they'd help me. So I finally agreed, and I'm happy I did because I'm having a good time. It's a wonderful cast. It's wonderful people to work with."
For Erin Dilly, who plays Truly Scrumptious, her role offered the Boy From Syracuse star a chance to play someone she described as "marvelously modern and prickly and intelligent and headstrong. She's a bit off center, which immediately attracted me because there's nothing about her that's typical. She enters on a motorcycle. She's a tough girl, but then her heart melts upon meeting this family that needs a mother."
Dilly also has nothing but praise for her co-stars. "It really doesn't get much better than this. I've had such a good time with these people. Raúl is fantastically creative, an electric guy to be onstage with. Philip walks into a room and melts everybody's heart because he has the warmest, most beautiful spirit. And the kids are stealing the show, and they don't even know they're stealing the show!"
When asked whether she thinks Chitty will appeal to both adults and children, Dilly said, "Honestly, I think it's a great family show. Obviously, visually it's going to be delicious for a child to watch, but there's a lot of adult humor. There's a story that's engaging for everybody. There's a beautiful reparation of this family. It's not at all [just] a children's show, which I think could be an easy misconception. It most definitely will open doors for a new generation to come to the theatre, but I think it's for all kinds of ages."
Perhaps Noble summed up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang most succinctly: "It's a show we think combines extraordinary technological and scenic achievement," said the director, "with a heart as big as Broadway."
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang officially opens at the Hilton Theatre April 28. Visit www.chittythemusical.com for more information.