In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

First Stage's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" runs through Nov. 5. (PHOTO: Paul Ruffolo Photography)

First Stage's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is an imaginative delight for all ages

There are some aspects of being an adult that I thoroughly enjoy. It's wonderful to have a home of my own, to go to bed whenever I want, to eat whatever I want and to enjoy a glass of wine even as I write this article. But let's face it, there are some parts of adulthood that are hard to swallow. I can't say I look forward to making a monthly student loan payment, or paying my electricity bill when I would much rather be spending that money on a Target shopping spree.

When the burdens and responsibilities of being a mature adult become occasionally overwhelming, the need to escape takes over. But escape to what? For me, escaping often means going back to a simpler, more liberating time in my life: childhood. The time when my biggest stress was worrying about if I would get back in time from morning kindergarten to watch the latest episode of "Barney and Friends."

I had the privilege of indulging in another trip to a more innocent state of mind this past Sunday afternoon during First Stage's outstanding production of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

I have to confess, before seeing this charming performance, my knowledge of the characters and plot was nonexistent. I am well aware of the 1968 film starring Dick Van Dyke, but when I was a kid, the main thing I watched was "The Sound of Music" on repeat (God bless my parents for their patience).

But after watching the remarkably talented cast tackle this endearing story, I know I'm going to have to give the movie version a fair try. They've even set the bar extremely high, giving Dick Van Dyke some pretty big shoes to fill.

As director Jeff Frank describes, this story has a little bit of everything; it's filled with humor, adventure, danger, heart, invention and especially imagination. And at the heart of it all is a family that keeps the faith and faces life's challenges with optimism, becoming stronger in the process.

Set in 1910 England, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" begins with the discovery of a once great vehicle in the local junkyard. The children's ensemble sing about the wonders of their incredible discovery during the opening number, "This Great Car," a catchy tune that sounds like a delightful ride on a merry-go-round. Two of the children, Jeremy and Jemima (charmingly portrayed by the Miraculous Children's cast Seth Hoffman and Michalene McQuide) decide to do whatever it takes to bring this car back to its former glory. Enter Caractacus Potts, their loving, inventor father, charmingly played by Jackson Evans, who purchases the former Grand-Prix winning vehicle and makes it a truly glorious machine.

It is then that we meet the Baron and Baroness of the land of Vulgaria, as well as their evil henchmen Goran and Boris (all of whom come dangerously close to stealing the show with their delightful portrayals). This gang of villains takes notice of this remarkable invention and desperately wants it for themselves. It's then that we learn that "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is so much more than an ordinary car: It can float on water and even fly in the air when threatened (I now find my 2014 Ford Focus a completely lackluster drive). The remainder of the 90-minute tale involves a case of mistaken identity, a brief kidnapping, a heroic rescue and (spoiler alert) a beautiful reunion between a lovely family and their beloved car.

It's hard to say what my favorite part of the performance was. One completely enjoyable aspect of the show was certainly the songs themselves. Within the first notes sung, I was immediately impressed by the capable vocals (I'm a sucker for harmony) and the impeccable British accents across the cast. The choreography, beautifully done by husband and wife team Michael and Jayne Pink, effectively enhanced the story without distracting from it.

Another highlight was the engaged reaction of a delighted audience. It was hard to ignore the smiles and the laughs of both the children and adults throughout the auditorium (there were certain points of the afternoon when my date for the day, my mother, arguably laughed harder than the kids surrounding her).

But perhaps my favorite part of First Stage's interpretation of this quirky story was its ability to effortlessly relate to all ages. Just as I occasionally struggle with mature responsibilities, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a show that, quite literally, is divided between whimsy (childhood and the Potts' home country of England) and reality (adulthood and the ficitional land of Vulgaria). Vulgaria is a place where children are strictly prohibited; if that's not a symbol of the pains of growing up, or of a farewell to childhood innocence, I don't know what is.

But you know what? Sometimes it's OK, no matter how old we are, to let your inner child out. Just as the imprisoned children of Vulgaria did at the musical's conclusion, it's encouraged to occasionally storm the Baron of your personal Vulgaria, and indulge in the magic and imagination once found in childhood.

And a great way to do that, is to treat yourself to this entertaining, always-charming show.

Performances of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" run at the Todd Wehr Theater now through Nov. 5. Visit firststage.org/chitty or call their box office at 414-267- 2961 to experience the ride of your life.


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