The multimillion dollar Broadway production of the hit London musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which opens at the Hilton Theatre this month, revs up a cast of 50, a flock of 13 children, a pack of eight dogs and spectacular scenery that includes a whirling windmill, a colorful candy factory and an enchanting toymaker's workshop.
Yet the most breathtaking aspect of the show, based on the beloved 1968 movie musical with an instantly recognizable score by the legendary Sherman Brothers ("Mary Poppins," "The Jungle Book"), is no doubt the homonymous flying racecar, a jaw-dropping, eye-popping work of engineering and design that is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most expensive prop ever built for the stage.
"People cry. People just weep at the joy of seeing this car flying out over the auditorium," explains Chitty's director, Adrian Noble, who leads an all-star team that includes choreographer Gillian Lynne and book writer Jeremy Sams. "Seeing something fly, and actually not know how it's happening, in front of your very eyes is truly amazing. Its impact [live in the theatre] is so much greater than it was in the film."
The car may be the star, but the engine of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, based on a novella by James Bond author Ian Fleming, is still its moving story and its rich characters. So the biggest challenge for Noble wasn't figuring out how to hoist a one-and-a-half ton antique auto into the air and make it soar; it was getting the right personnel to tell the tale of this unconventional family that embarks on an incredible adventure in a magical car to save their grandfather from the clutches of evil. To cast the show, Noble followed the same formula that he used in London: He found a mix of seasoned musical-theatre performers, like Erin Dilly and Marc Kudisch, and actors who are known for their polished dramatic chops, including Raul Esparza, Philip Bosco and Jan Maxwell. "Ultimately, it doesn't matter if the car flies out over the audience if you don't believe in these people and care about what happens to them as a family," says Esparza, who dances "Me Ol' Bamboo" as eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts, the role made famous by Dick Van Dyke in the original film.
Noble, formerly head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, explains that he was looking for someone who could take the audience on the journey of a single father who is trying to raise two kids on his own, but is distracted and consumed by his work. "He finds it very hard. So he puts up a lot of defenses. Then, slowly, during the course of the story, those defenses come down. And he learns teamwork; he learns to love again; he learns to let Truly Scrumptious into his life and into his heart. So you need somebody who can act that. And you need somebody who can sing beautifully and 'dance the bamboo!'"
Esparza, who has done everything from the Boy George musical, Taboo, to Larry Kramer's riveting chronicle of the early AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart, was just the guy.
And Noble, who has made it something of a mission to introduce younger audiences to the theatre in staging such successful productions as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Secret Garden, sought to draw out those darker elements in the source material. He and scriptwriter Sams didn't have to look far, though, thanks to what Noble calls the éminence grise behind the show: the wickedly macabre adult and children's book author Roald Dahl, who was hired by legendary producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli to write the original screenplay.
"Getting [Dahl] on board was key," says Noble of the film. "He was a wild, anarchic, extraordinary genius. And he would say, quite simply, 'Vulgaria, they're the Nazis. The Child Catcher, he's the Gestapo. And the children are the Jews.' So it became this wonderful satire on tyrants that was filled with fun and adventure, but still had that Roald Dahl anger behind it: That people can hurt other people in terrible ways."
Although Chitty may deal with these important themes through the use of strange and even sinister imagery, Noble and the producing team, which was spearheaded by Broccoli's widow, Dana, still wanted to create a heartfelt show that the whole family could enjoy.
Says Esparza: "Ian Fleming wrote this story for his son because his son said to him, 'Daddy, you love James Bond more than me.' And [Fleming] said, 'No, I don't.' So he wrote ["Chitty"] for his boy. And ultimately, the whole point of the story is about a father trying to prove to his kids that he loves them. Everybody can relate to that. And it's a family that wants to fly. And everybody wants to fly. And it's a family that's broken. And everybody is terrified that their family will break. And the parents lose their kids in the show. And what parent isn't terrified that they're going to lose their kids?"
And while Noble may have done an impeccable job finding the right actors to make the show soar emotionally, he better hope they're ready to do some actual flying when the four-fendered friend finally sprouts its wings. "I'm terrified of heights," reveals Esparza, laughing. "That's going to be a real mess. I guess I'll just have to buck up and deal with it."
"Have you told that to Adrian?" queries this interviewer.
"No, but I'm sure he'll find out when I'm up there screaming at the top of my lungs."