Oh, My Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Follows in the Footsteps of Jesus

The popular appeal of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the cavernous Hilton Theatre is a combo platter of the following:

Lots and lots of children and lots and lots of dogs. One adorably jolly song reprised five million adorable times: “Oh! You! Pretty Chitty Bang Bang / Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we love you …. ” Plus American actors who speak like Julie Andrews. Lots and lots of hugs. American actresses who look like Julie Andrews (Erin Dilly as feisty, adorable Truly Scrumptious). James Bond–like names (Ian Fleming-criminally uncredited in the Playbill-wrote Chitty Chitty as a children’s story for his young son).

Hence the Evil Empire of child haters who rule in the state of Vulgaria (Jan Maxwell, of all lovely actresses, as Baroness Bomburst), and the adorably eccentric Potts family, Caractacus Potts (Raúl Esparza, last seen as a disgusting hipster in Taboo, here very busy hugging every adorable little kiddie-winkie in sightie). Not to mention the adorably huggable Grandpa Potts (the distinguished Philip Bosco, poor sod, last seen as the racist juror in Twelve Angry Men).

The Potts family is a bit “potty,” as the Brits say. Still, it’s all in a good cause. Namely, money. Or as George S. Kauffman put it, “gelt by association.” Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for 12 underpaid, devoted years, is the director, and I trust he’s now enjoying life in his sunny villa in the South of France. But though more than a few parents with tiny tots I know adored the show, it must be the child hater in me that couldn’t quite respond.

For my killjoy self, this is a remote, cold, insistently manufactured show. It’s appropriate that one of the big numbers has the leads impersonating mechanical dolls. The real star of Chitty Chitty is, of course, its eponymous Chittyness-that adorable magic car that floats and flies and defies child haters everywhere. (Chitty even takes the last bow at the curtain call, upstaging the semi-live actors). The sight of Anthony Ward’s beloved car flying out from the stage over the orchestra pit is a technological marvel, I guess. But in Jesus Christ Superstar 35 years ago, Jesus did exactly the same thing.

Jesus once levitated on Broadway, hovering over the orchestra pit. And now it’s just a car. There’s progress for you!

Near, far, in our motorcar

Oh what a happy time we’ll spend

Bang bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Our fine four-fendered friend

Bang bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Our fine four-fendered friend.

It isn’t easy singing “Our fine four-fendered friend,” is it? This is the way the musical will end-not with a bang, but a Chitty.

Make Me a Star!

Suppose you’re in a musical, though you’ve never appeared in one before. Suppose you can’t really sing or dance. And suppose this is your first time on the professional stage.

Now, if you can imagine that nightmare and still see yourself starring in a Broadway musical, you deserve the Christina Applegate Award for pluck.

Ms. Applegate, the star of the mediocre revival of Sweet Charity, is the popular TV performer who appeared for 11 seasons on Married … with Children. She’s always wanted to be in a Broadway musical. And now she is. And yet a glance at her biography reveals that she has no stage experience. She’s a TV performer who was most recently seen in Surviving Christmas and Anchorman.

Hiring stars- any stars-to sell Broadway to the masses is nothing new, but “No Previous Experience Required” looks like a phenomenon to me. The idea that it doesn’t take any training or experience to appear on Broadway has at least a democratic virtue. Though the last time I was onstage was at college, next season I shall be starring as Billy Bigelow in the Barry and Fran Weissler revival of Carousel, to be directed by Joe Mantello, costumes by William Ivey Long. If all goes as planned, I shall also be giving my definitive performance of King Lear at the Roundabout Theatre, director Sir Peter Hall, costumes by William Ivey Long.

As Christine Applegate would say, it’s all a fairy tale come true. Hence the extra significance of her big number in Sweet Charity, “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”

But in truth, Ms. Applegate isn’t a born musical performer. Her Charity Hope Valentine, the dance-hall hostess who’s in search of love, is bland and pretty-a suburban girl next-door. Ms. Applegate’s comic timing is assured. Her singing voice, though miked to the heavens, is obviously thin and not always on key. Her dance moves have been learned mechanically. There’s no excitingly innate, silky feeling for dance, only simulation.

Being game-having a bash-might be appealing to some. We live in an American Idol age of triumphant amateurs. But what’s essentially missing from everything is that indefinable, God-given gift to an elite league of mesmerizing musical performers: stage magic. For much of the show, Ms. Applegate seems to be impersonating Shirley MacLaine from the 1969 movie adaptation. But I’m afraid that only reminds us what a knockout Ms. MacLaine was.

It’s been noted by one and all that the Tony Award–winning Denis O’Hare, who played a neurotic gay accountant in Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, is playing a neurotic heterosexual accountant here. Mr. O’Hare, who can sing about as well as any accountant, practically has a heart attack in desperate search of a few laughs while trapped in an elevator with Ms. Applegate.

For my taste, that very short and very wide old-timer, Ernie Sabella as Herman the harassed dance-hall manager, is the standout pro. The Runyonesque Mr. Sabella knows how to deliver a song without trying. He needs only one moment, one opportunity the entire evening-and he grabs it. He conveys the infectious pleasure of performing, and he reminds us what accounts for that once-great invention, the all-American musical. He’s one of a kind.

It was good to hear Cy Coleman’s jazzy score again, with lyrics by Dorothy Field, but unfortunately this is a tired revival by veteran director Walter Bobbie. Broadway nostalgia for the Swinging 60’s should be declared over and out. How many more times can we see chorus girls in mini-skirts dancing the Pony? Neil Simon’s book for Sweet Charity was never his best work, but Wayne Cilento’s contribution has coarsened Bob Fosse’s original choreography to the point of uncomfortable parody. The cheesy sets are by Scott Pask. The costumes are by William Ivey Long.