Like every single production at First Stage, there are a lot of reasons to go see a show – in this case “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which opened last weekend.
You can go for the story, or the music or the dancing or the sets or the costumes or the cute kids or the always smart and sensitive direction.
But in this production, there is one (or is it two) reasons to go see this show.
In major roles are two of the absolute lions of Milwaukee theater – Drew Brehl and Robert Spencer.
These are two men who for decades, have starred everywhere from Broadway to Door County with stops all over and in between. Their records of accomplishment are virtually unmatched in this state and this production gives them a chance to use all of their considerable chops and all of us a rare opportunity to watch them on the stage together.
Mr. Spencer plays Grandpa Potts and Mr. Brehl plays the Baron of Vulgaria and they are both integral to this story about an old car that becomes a magic car, floating on water, flying through the air and proving that by working together, you can accomplish just about everything.
The car! Aaaah, yes! The Car!!!
It’s an old beat-up wreck destined for the graveyard. But two children, Jeremy and Jemima Potts (Seth Hoffman and Michalene McQuide in the MIraculous cast), vow to save it, if they can come up with the 30 bob needed to buy it.
Enter their dad, Caractacus Potts (Jackson Evans), who comes up with the money and sets out to restore the vehicle to its former glory and then some.
Like all good stories for a family, you need some bad guys in this thing, and the Baron and Baroness (Elyse Edelman) fit the bill well.
And it is the battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil that carry this story along at a pace that Director Jeff Frank keeps tight rein on. He never lets the tale get away from him. If you remember the 1968 movie that the play is based on you’ll be surprised by the depth of the character development in this version.
The movie was all about the car. The play is about the car and the people whose lives intersect with that car. First Stage has an enviable reputation for demanding that audiences use their imagination when confronting the varied miracles in its productions.
The art, if you will, is that the company always makes you feel good that you are exercising your imagination and proud of yourself for being able to take these flights of fancy and arrive safely. Think of cast members, hidden in plain sight, making the car wiggle and shake so that it seems like it’s really moving. Think of cast members, hidden in plain sight, with light blue pieces of waving fabric, making you believe that this car really is sailing one of the seven seas.
Time after time, production after production, First Stage always achieves the most difficult tasks in theater – it makes you stretch to the edge of belief and it makes you feel comfortable and safe.
The limits of stage and space have always presented a challenge for First Stage. When you tell stories for children (and their families) the pressure on artists and designers becomes immense. And in this one, everybody steps up to the plate and hits line drives.
It starts with the car, designed by Nikki Kulas, the properties master who has a special touch for strewing a set with the kind of stuff that makes any locale come alive.
Paul Helm directed the music for the charming songs and played his keyboard from a perch center stage right in the middle of the audience.
For choreography, full of delight, Frank turned to no less an expert in Michael Pink, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet, and his wife, Jayne. They are a perfect example of what might be called the First Stage formula. Mix seasoned professional actors with a variety of young actors and have choreographers like the Pinks meld the whole thing into an energetic and interesting ensemble.
Still, above all of this, the spectacle of Mr. Brehl and Mr. Spencer on the same stage is almost too delicious to bear for anyone who loves the theater. Spencer is a master of the understated, moving with care and purpose and wearing expressions of wonder and confidence under his bushy mustache.
I will always associate Brehl with his “I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” the song from Pirates of Penzance at Skylight last year. It was then, and remains, one of the most sparkling and funny things I’ve ever seen on a stage.
As the evil Baron here, he plays with Ms. Edelman as a duo who revel in just how nasty they can be. And all that nastiness makes for a very good time for those of us sitting in the audience.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” runs through November 5 and information on tickets and showtimes is available at www.firststage.org.
Production credits: Director, Jeff Frank; Music director, Paul Helm; Co-Choreographers, Michael Pink, Jayne Pink; Costume Designer, Lyndsey Kuhlmann; Scenic Designer, Martin McClendon; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Sound Designer, Matt Whitmore; Stage Manager, Melissa L. Wanke; Assistant Stage Manager, Lauren Gingold; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.