The Coterie Theatre delivers a thoroughly delightful adaptation of the musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” with superior performances and sense of humor that cuts across age categories.
I kid you not. I swear on my dead cats’ graves that if you’re an adult, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in this young-audiences production — especially if you ever appreciated the comedy of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
Adapted from the full-length, two-act musical that originally played London and then Broadway, director Jeff Church has shrewdly edited Jeremy Sams’ book and transformed it into a fast-moving show that clocks in at 75 minutes or so.
Background: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” began as a children‘s book published in 1964 by Ian Fleming, evidently taking a break from churning out James Bond novels. It later became the basis of a 1968 movie musical designed to exploit the “Mary Poppins” mojo by casting Dick Van Dyke in the lead and inviting Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, longtime Disney songwriters, to craft hummable tunes. The stage musical opened in London in 2002 and three years later in New York.
The story has to do with an eccentric English inventor Caractacus Potts (Jake Walker) and his two adorable children, Jemima and Jeremy (Allison Banks and Lucas Dorrell). Widower Potts, at his children’s request, buys a junky old car and fiddles with it to the point that he miraculously imbues it with the power to fly.
Its existence attracts the attention of an infantile Germanic dictator, Baron Bomburst (Jerry Jay Cranford), who dispatches spies (Damian Blake and Teddy Trice) to steal it.
This version of the show has no dull stretches, thanks to Church, who directs the Coterie production at a breathless pace with an eye for detail.
The humor in this piece is broad but precise. Think of it as refined slapstick. The set and props are constructed of thick corrugated cardboard decorated with two-dimension renderings. No one on the design team makes a bigger contribution than Georgianna Londre Buchanan, whose costumes are as vivid as decorations on a birthday cake. Some of her outfits are stand-alone visual jokes.
The Sherman songs are among their best. The actors, strong singers all, are accompanied by keyboardist Angelyn Benson and reed-player Brett Jackson.
Walker perfectly embodies the youthful enthusiasm of Potts and is complemented seamlessly by the elegant Stefanie Wienecke as Truly Scrumptious. Wienecke’s physical performance late in the show as a mechanical doll is something to see.
The kids hold their own quite nicely with their adult colleagues, which is no small achievement in a cast that includes some serious hams. Blake and Trice, as the bumbling spies, Boris and Goran, are hilarious. Martin Buchanan has some fun with Grandpa Potts, the garrulous retired military man.
Hughston Walkinshaw is so effective as the Childcatcher, equipped with a long nose and a black outfit, that a couple of kids at the Saturday matinee became so frightened that their parents had to grab them and talk them down.
The show’s dominant comic performance comes from Cranford, whose Baron Bomburst, is a riot. Decked out in a comic-opera military uniform, Cranford fills up the Coterie stage. He works so well with Julie Shaw as Baroness Bomburst (the harsh maternal figure in the relationship) that they should consider taking their act on the road.
Some actors play multiple roles — Cranford is impressive as Lord Scrumptious, while Walkinshaw shows up as a turkey farmer and later as a junkman. Bob Linebarger plays Mr. Coggins, who sells the car to Potts, and a toymaker.
The big ensemble includes a roster of talented young people. With a cast of 18, Church had to manage quite a bit of foot traffic on and off the stage, but the show never feels cluttered. It’s a nice example of controlled chaos.
The car, also made of cardboard and designed by Alex Espy, is an inventive piece of work. No, it doesn’t literally fly, but the effect is suggested by lighting, actors and moving scenery.
I believe that’s what they call make-believe. The last time I checked, that’s what theater is all about.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.