PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's an Aereo-automobile!

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's an Aereo-automobile!
Calling all kids (including the kid inside): That winged roadster of old—Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (chronologically 1910, cinematically 1968)—touched down April 28 at the Hilton Theatre as the ultimate Broadway kiddie's show. Adults can safely come, too.

Sherman; Raul Esparza; Erin Dilly; Ellen Marlow & Henry Hodges; Philip Bosco; Anne Jeffreys; Rachel Dratch & Tina Fey; Kathie Lee Gifford; Jesse Tyler Ferguson & Chip Zien; William Finn; Kevin Cahoon; Robert Sella; Jan Maxwell & Marc Kudisch
Sherman; Raul Esparza; Erin Dilly; Ellen Marlow & Henry Hodges; Philip Bosco; Anne Jeffreys; Rachel Dratch & Tina Fey; Kathie Lee Gifford; Jesse Tyler Ferguson & Chip Zien; William Finn; Kevin Cahoon; Robert Sella; Jan Maxwell & Marc Kudisch Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Plenty did. You could spot them later at the party at the Hilton Hotel, partaking of the photo-op, posing (sans children) beside the famous flying car as proudly as if they had just purchased the farm. In the 37 years since the four-wheeled wonder was first roadtested on screen, a whole generation has grown up with memories of that merry original filmusical by The Brothers Sherman (Richard M. and Robert B.) and, of all improbable bedfellows, OO7's late Ian Fleming. We're talking childhood memories here, and that generation now has a generation of their own to pass those memories along to.

"Face it: the car's the star," The Post critic Clive Barnes conceded the morning after. To see it lift off terra firma (timidly and tentatively at first but building to what could actually be called airborne) is worth a ticket to ride for both generations. And the star cargo on board has been hand picked to make this 124-minute trip as pleasant as humanly possible.

In the front seat, at the controls: Raul Esparza as post-Victorian inventor Caractacus Potts, obviously a Rube Goldberg disciple from the looks of the sets; beside him in the catbird seat is Erin Dilly, Truly Scrumptious in spirit and actual name. Filling the rumble seat are his motherless, subteen brood of two (Henry Hodges and Ellen Marlow) and Philip Bosco as his fuddy-duddy dad, a British Army retiree who anachronistically knows Groucho Marx jokes (only one really, but it has torturously endless variations).

The overture wastes no time breaking into the other reason why everybody is there—the jaunty, Oscar-nominated title tune which the Shermans based on the god-awful, start-stop sounds that the vehicle makes in working up a full head of steam. A clap-along, almost inevitably, breaks out, following the sprightly beat of conductor Kristen Blodgette. Her hair bops in time to the music engagingly—audience-engagingly—and, when the title contraption eventually took flight, it seemed to come perilously close to parting her hair.

The song made such infectious exit music that normally sound-minded first nighters filed out like pod people onto open-air double-decker tour buses that were waiting to take all from Hilton to Hilton. "Open-air" would have been a splendid idea on a warm night. Wisely avoiding the windy wilds of the second story were a clever Connecticut contingent that included two of Britainia's best gifts to Broadway (Millicent Martin and Sally Ann Howes) and Elaine Orbach, Jerry's widow. Martin, who looks like Debbie Reynolds these days but still speaks in crisp King's English, did the original 42nd Street with Jerry, finished a four-year stint with "Frasier" and an independent British flick with Joan Plowright. Her last appearance on stage was the Houston world-premiere of Hal Hackady's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Howes, of course, is the original Truly Scrumptious. A proper fuss was made over her by the photographers and the press when she arrived at the theatre. "I felt like I was Nicole Kidman," she laughed later. "They flew me over to London when the play premiered there, and Michael Ball [who played the Dick Van Dyke lead] brought me up on stage after everyone had taken their curtain call. It was thrilling! I said, `This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life—show up at the premieres of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.'"

She adored both versions, thought it was bigger in Britain because of the size of the theatre over there (the Hilton here is hardly a shoebox), appreciated the script-trimming done for the states and made her peace with Truly's loss of songs in the stage versions. "They cut one and gave a few to Michael since he's so well-known there as a singer."

If there was anyone more truly scrumptious at the theatre, it was Anne Jeffreys, who came in out of nowhere, or L.A., to attend the opening and then jetted right back out. Still visually a stunner—at 82 going on 60—she is beloved in a variety of mediums: stage (Kiss Me Kate), screen (she was Dick Tracy's Tess Trueheart) and TV ("Topper"). "My friends and I just got in this morning, and we're leaving right after the show. They have their own plane so we just drive when they feel like going. That's the kind of friends to have, right? Particularly for people like me who love the theatre so."

Her husband, Robert Sterling, has been bedridden for four years, she said, "but he's very liberal with me. I told him about this trip, and he said, 'Go, honey. Have a good time.'"

Another unexpected first-nighter off the beaten track was Chicago Tony-nominee Marcia Lewis, who has semi-retired to Nashville to be the wife of banker Fred Bryan. "We got in this morning," she said. "Went to Sardi's for lunch. I wondered if my caricature would still be up. It was. My friend, Lee Roy Reams, told me, 'You gotta go in and let them know you're around 'cause, if you don't, they'll put it on the second floor.' They didn't."

Possibly planning some long-term family entertainment, a pregnant Tina Fey was present to check out Chitty, as were her "Saturday Night Live" cohorts, Rachel Dratch and Fred Armisen. Also: Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford and their Cassidy (no Cody).

Chris Biggins, who gives at the office in London (as the nefarious Baron), spent his few days off from Chitty, catching this one. Trish Walsh-Smith, wife of Shubert prexy Phil Smith, made sure he met and chatted up Esparza, who had seen the London production.

Late-arriving—because they had their own shows to do—were Jonathan Dokuchitz, now the TV deejay of Hairspray, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who's opening Monday at Circle in the Square in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. William Finn, who contributed songs to the latter, attended the show as a longtime friend of Chip Zien, one of two nefarious characters pumping conflict and turmoil in the evening's proceedings.

Dokuchitz was there for Dilly, and Ferguson was there for Kevin Cahoon, a pal (before and) since the "Encores!" Hair—and Chitty's chief heavy, The Childcatcher, who corrals and jails all the subteens in the vicinity of Vulgaria. It is complete boos, he said, "from the minute I show up to the curtain call," and it doesn't help any—then, again, it helps an awful lot—that he is made up to look like the archetype of scary silent-screen evil: Max Schreck in the vampiric title role of F. W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu. "But there's a lot of glamour to him," Cahoon insisted, trying to put a good face on it. "The character is very egocentric and has a lot of vanity. We do big red lips and crazy eyebrows for him."

Not a lot of love is lost between him and the audience when he is hoisted by a cargo net to the moon, it would seem. (Quite a few of the actors become airborne at one point or another during the show, including Bosco who does his traveling in a portable outhouse.)

"I had a fear of heights before I started, but I don't now," Cahoon confesses. "I can see the audience, and they love that part so much that I get off on it as well. I guess that you just have to commit to the moment and not think about the danger you're going through."

Zien and Robert Sella likewise contribute some broad-stroked villainy to the proceedings as a pair of spies who could be Laurel and Hardy doing English panto. The roles, said Sella, have been sorta Americanized a bit. "They gave us a real opportunity to find things that were funny for us. It was a struggle sometimes to say, 'In America this would be better,' because the difference between our characters is the difference between music hall performance and vaudeville. We're walking a line between 'Yes, we're characters in the play, but, yes, we're also watching out for you to have a good time.' There are more laughs when the audience's adult. Kids have a different vibe about the spies we play. Sometimes the old humor goes over their heads. We love it when the adults come."

Both characters are dressed, cartoon-like, for guffaws. "Anthony Ward, who's behind the sets and costumes, came over and said, 'I want you all to have as much input as you can. We've done it London. We've seen what works and what doesn't. What do you think?' He was very open so I said, 'I think we should be as odd and as iconic and as strange-looking as we can.' I didn't want to just look like a regular guy so we played with all sorts looks and settled on this cross between Prince Valiant and Theda Bara."

Brand new dad in town, Sella said son Valentino Sella was upstairs, sleeping. "We [actress-wife Enid Graham] are staying the night. We have a babysitter watching so we wouldn't have to go back to Washington Heights tonight. Enid was in rehearsal [for The Constant Wife with Kate Burton and Vanessa Redgrave] right up to curtain. She came over after the rehearsal, saw the show, went up and fed him and now is in the food lines."

Occupying yet another comedy ring in the musical are Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell, swiping scenes right and left as the well-named Baron and Baroness Bomburst. Maxwell's baroness is not appreciatively different from her countess in the last Broadway revival of The Sound of Music: she loathes the small fry. "I don't know why this is because I get along so well with the kids, and I have a nine-year-old son myself, but, for some reason, I'm the child-hating bitch."

Both are up for Outer Critics Awards, and Maxwell is Drama Desk Award nominated also. She pooh-poohs the notion of more nominations. "I don't think so. I insult everyone who sings and dances in this show. I'm the 'trained actress' who sings and dances."

What does she like—other than lines like "I should not have allowed toys into this marriage"—about the zany aristocrat she plays? "I like that she's highly medicated. There's a lot of Madame Ceausescu and Eva Peron and Laura Bush and Theresa Heinz Kerry in her. You always wanted Theresa to have the wine after the rally, but she never did. I took from every first lady from any country I know of who's crazy and put them together."

She gave Kudisch credit for helping her characterization work as well as it does. "We're very different. We come from different energies. He's a very ambitious, energetic guy, and I'm a lazy, unmotivated woman. For some mysterious reason, that works on stage." Kudisch seconded that motion. "We never do anything without each other. It wouldn't work otherwise. We found that we just have different approaches and that they just happen to really compliment each other. We're a team, a couple on that stage. Characters define other characters so it's great to have someone you can bounce back and forth off of. Sometimes it is possible that you can find your performance through someone else."

Three guesses what Dilly's favorite moment in the show is. Still, she hesitated. "Would it be cliche to say `When we fly?' My second most favorite is singing 'Truly Scrumptious' with the children. It is such a remarkable experience to sing the Sherman songs. In this very jaded world, it's a very rare opportunity. They have such guileless innocence."

Esparza agreed. "Something happened with the show a few weeks ago where we suddenly found, as actors, this innocence—the idea that it's wonderful and we're discovering it for the first time. This has changed the quality of the show completely." Chitty is more relentlessly G-rated that Esparza's usual run of shows, but he jumped in with both feet and generated a genuine sense of fun. "It's especially necessary," he insisted. "If I'm not having a good time, then you would be bored out of your mind." The other ace up his sleeve is a likeness, visually and vocally, of the late Anthony Newley—a smart little fillip since, if Van Dyke had not done the movie, Newley would have been the logical second choice. Esparza holds the position that any similarity is unintentional and in the eye and ear of the beholder.

"People keep saying I remind them of him. I was offered Stop the World and Roar of the Greasepaint to do in rep as an idea once, and I think I'd like to try it, but those are big shoes to fill. I have never actually seen him do anything, but I will say that there was a gesture I did in rehearsal and Gillian [Lynne, the choreographer] said, 'Tony, don't do that.' Then she stopped, and she said, 'I can't believe it. I just called you Tony.' I said, 'So let's leave it in.' So, from someone who never saw Anthony Newley, there's an Anthony Newley tribute in the show."

The classy company he keeps on stage, Esparza contended, is another way of taking the curse off the show's sweetness and light, hopefully providing a view beyond that. "First of all, working with Phil Bosco is an absolute honor. I've admired him for years and years. and Erin's a thrill. We have great chemistry together, and it's been lovely to work with her. For all of us to do these kinds of parts is part of the fun of taking it on in the first place. I saw Robbie play Prior in Angels in America, and the first Broadway musical I ever saw was Into the Woods [with Chip Zien] so it's just amazing to be on stage with these guys every night. I think they were very smart to try to take good care of the show because the strike against it is that people will perceive it as a children's show and nothing else, and they brought in a cast that had such quality that maybe regular theatregoers will not be turned off and they won't miss the extraordinary spectacle that it has. It has a lot of good heart, and it's a real throwback to an old-fashioned wonderful kind of writing that the Sherman brothers perfected in the films and what Broadway used to do extraordinarily well. And I think there's room for that. I really do. I think we should have all kinds of shows on Broadway, and I think there's room for this kind of spectacle."

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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