Theatre review: Talent trumps tech in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' musical

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 27 2017 06:19 PM

MANILA — There is more to the stage musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” than a flying car — and that is both good news and bad news for this latest production of Resorts World Manila, which had its gala night on Thursday at the Newport Performing Arts Theater.

Based on the children’s story by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is about the adventures of widowed inventor Caractacus Potts, his two children, their grandfather and an heiress of a candy factory with the Bond girl name Truly Scrumptious. A big chunk of the first act deals mostly with their attempts to raise money to buy the titular car. However, they are not the only ones who are eyeing the vehicle. The baron of Vulgaria also wants Chitty to be his toy and he sends two bumbling spies Boris and Goran to Britain to get the car. When they fail to do so, they instead kidnap Grandpa Potts thinking that he was the one who made the car.

The musical takes on a darker tone in Act 2, when the action shifts to Vulgaria where children are not allowed. When the two Potts kids are captured by the creepy Childcatcher, Caractacus and Truly hatch a revolution not just to rescue the children and their grandpa but to finally free Vulgaria from tyranny.

Gian Magdangal, Isabeli Araneta Elizalde and Albert Silos as the Potts family with their car Chitty. Handout photo

Anyone who has seen the 1968 movie starring Dick Van Dyke knows that Chitty isn’t just a beat-up car but one that’s worthy of James Bond himself since it can float at sea and fly to the skies. When the film was turned into a stage musical in 2002, theatergoers were excited to see a car fly right before their eyes. This became the musical’s gimmick — much like the helicopter of “Miss Saigon” and the crashing chandelier of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The car is also one of the come-ons for local audiences. In their message, Full House Theater Company’s artistic directors Michael Williams and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, who also appear in “Chitty” in key supporting roles, took note of the “highly technical” aspects of the show, “which features a flying car that is sure to amaze the audiences.”

A 2005 review of the Broadway production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” described this magical moment: ‘Chitty sails over the stage and the first few rows of the theater, while the audience responds with deservedly enthusiastic cheers and applause.” 

If that is what it’s supposed to do, the car in this local production simply wasn’t as impressive. Director Jaime del Mundo, projections designer GA Fallarme and sound designer Rards Corpuz mixed live action with video, sound effects and stage technology to create the illusion of a flying car to end Act 1. When that scene starts, we already see the car and its four passengers raised through hydraulics. The video background then changes into a starry night so the car seems to be floating. But it doesn’t really move unlike the helicopter in “Miss Saigon,” which lifts then glides until it disappears into the wings. Instead, it’s more like seeing Elphaba rise to the top of the stage in “Wicked” while belting out “Defying Gravity.” 

The creative team was more successful in an earlier scene after Chitty was first revealed and the Potts family took the car to the beach. The car was positioned on a revolving stage and set against a moving background of a countryside and actors walking backwards as the car “passed” them by. This was a lot more believable and even charming with its old-school animation.

Moreover, for a musical that’s supposed to be about a car, it’s surprising that it didn’t have as big of an impact. In fact, the car was practically non-existent in Act 2 until it was brought out again for the finale.

Gian Magdangal and Yanah Laurel lead the cast in the number ‘Toots Sweets.’ Handout

The good news, however, is that beyond the flying car gimmick, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” has many other winning elements such that it still managed to get a standing ovation from several audience members during Thursday’s gala.

Even those who are not familiar with the movie will certainly leave the Newport venue humming the catchy title song. While the musical is a tad too long at two-and-a-half hours, the score is indeed joyous and would appeal to children, ranging from the lullaby “Hushabye Mountain” to the cheerful “Truly Scrumptious.” Another ditty from the film “Doll in a Music Box” was charmingly presented while the new number “Teamwork” has a pep-talk vibe that lifts you up.

While several numbers don’t really move the plot forward, choreographer Nancy Crowe at least made them exciting like the exuberant “Me Ol’ Bamboo” led by lead actor Gian Magdangal and the Latin-flavored comedic number “The Bombie Samba,” with Lauchengco-Yulo in another villain role.

Director Del Mundo, who has staged numerous family musicals for Trumpets, certainly knows how to play to this market and working again with scenic designer Mio Infante, they created two memorable worlds that seemed to have popped up to life from old children’s books. While they frequently had to resort to staging scenes against a curtain during major scene changes, the revealed set more often than not was worth it. 

Scene-stealers Mako Alonso and Reb Atedero as bumbling spies. Handout photo 

The large cast also delivered, led by Magdangal, who returns to Resorts World seven years after he starred in Newport’s first stage offering “Kaos.” Magdangal actually channels Van Dyke in many scenes and his singing is consistent and faultless. With “Chitty” and his acclaimed performance in “Newsies,” local theater fans should be thankful that this Hong Kong Disneyland alumnus decided to resume his career in the Philippines.

After her breakout role as Lauren, the factory worker with a crush on her boss in “Kinky Boots,” Yanah Laurel showed that she is more than ready for lead roles. As Truly, she provides just the right amount of spunk and her solo number, “Lovely, Lonely Man,” was the show’s one truly dramatic number. 

As the Potts kids, Isabeli Araneta Elizalde and Albert Silos had the requisite wide-eyed enthusiasm and were always in harmony with each other.

As with many family musicals, the villains get to truly shine and here there were several of them. The duo of Mako Alonso and Reb Atedero as the ineffective Vulgarian spies stole the show with their hilarious repartees and interaction with the audience during intermission with their modern pop culture references while still in character, while Lorenz Martinez, though underutilized here, exuded an evil vibe as the Childcatcher, especially with the prosthetics and Bonsai Cielo’s steampunk costume design.

Then there’s Lauchengco-Yulo and Raymund Concepcion as the baroness and baron of Vulgaria, who were deliciously over-the-top.

Confetti rains on the stage during curtain call at the gala night of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’ Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” works best as old-fashioned family entertainment, much like the movie. But if you’re looking for stage magic, it just doesn’t evoke the kind of awe as when Sam Concepcion flew around the Meralco Theater stage as Peter Pan or when Tom Rodriguez took K-La Rivera on a magic carpet ride in “Aladdin.” Or even when Karylle twirled and suddenly had a gorgeous ball gown in Resorts World's "Cinderella."

Still you won’t get that song easily out of your head.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” runs until November 12 at the Newport Performing Arts Theater of Resorts World Manila.