It’s a Kid’s Street Now

Lincoln Center offers the salvation of “Piazza”; “Chitty Chitty” has only shiny pizzazz

Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ ambitious new musical at Lincoln Center is a wonderful theater experience.

Intensely human, richly operatic and yet emotionally real, this simple story of a handicapped girl finding love and acceptance very nearly overwhelms the Vivian Beaumont with its gorgeous music, magnificent performances and some of the most breathtaking design to be seen on Broadway in years.

Lucas’ book adapts Elizabeth Spencer’s novel and focuses on the character of Margaret who has brought her daughter Clara to Florence. Clara was brain damaged in an accident as a child and so has never grown up emotionally, though she has a woman’s longings. The story follows Clara’s meeting and falling in love with the young Florentine Fabrizio, at least on the surface. Lucas, as always, writes deep characters of great complexity who only seem simple on the surface, and what makes the show so moving is that what it really is about is finding the ability to relinquish control and to trust that goodness is possible and that life’s fears can be faced.

Guettel’s sumptuous score pushes the musical form with dramatic melodic lines that are about the drama, not about writing pretty set pieces. At the same time, as in the title song, and several other instances, he shows himself more than capable of writing with heartbreaking lyricism.

Victoria Clark is magnificent as Margaret. Her performance as a woman adrift in a world she doesn’t understand and can’t quite allow herself to inhabit is admirable. She is the perfect 1950s woman whose life is crumbling beneath a flawless exterior. Yet the journey ends not in destruction but in cautious hope, and Clark plays the role with absolute, moving honesty. Her nearly perfect performance is matched on every level by the extraordinary cast.

Matthew Morrison as Fabrizio and Kelli O’Hara as Clara are perfectly matched, in temperament as in voice. Morrison, who originated the role of the vacuous Link in “Hairspray,” reveals a depth and a vocal skill that is extraordinary. O’Hara plays Clara with a simplicity and a passion that flawlessly chronicles the evolution of the sheltered girl into a tentative, but vibrant, woman.

Fabrizio’s family, which includes performances by Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Patti Cohenour and especially Mark Harelick, are wonderful.

Bartlett Sher’s direction is fluid and focused, deftly exploring the tensions and relationships, and the use of the character Clara as a means of helping the other characters imagine a different world is delicate and poetic.

Michael Yeargan’s set designs are some of the best on Broadway this year, with a sense of space and an evocation of Florence that is beautiful, and the costumes by Catherine Zuber are flawless down to the cut, fabrics and origins of the characters.

Yet, it is Christopher Akerlind’s lighting that is the real showstopper. It is, after all, the title character, and Akerlind achieved a level of precision and artistry that borders on genius.

With “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” New York finally has the perfect show—perfect, that is, for the mechanized theme park that Times Square has become. To consider this as a traditional musical would require cataloging the myriad production gimmicks that keep the show hovering around the insufferable mark for two-and-a-half hours—long past the attention span of the five-to-nine-year-olds who made up a significant percentage of the restless audience.

Given that this is not a show for adults, let’s consider it from the perspective of the parents affluent enough to drop $100 per ticket. It goes like this: Talk, talk, talk, happy song, talk, talk, talk (of precious children); car arrives, floats and flies; title song. Intermission. Second half—well, you get the picture, with the exception of the comic bit at the expense of gays.

No wonder the little darlings can’t sit still.

Aside from three instances when men kissing is presented as gross and silly, there is one particularly callow bit that really must be mentioned. As the car is making its final flight, the heroine of the piece, Truly Scrumptious, pulls out a rifle and shoots the villain, which results in a shower of confetti over the orchestra seats. Yes, it’s a lazy plot device, but in a world in which toy guns are deemed so dangerous that having or playing with them can get children expelled from school, the producers of this show are either clueless or cynical, and it’s hard to know which is worse.

The cast is largely undistinguished. Raúl Esparaza is Caractacus Potts, the inventor who rescues Chitty from the scrap heap and wins the love of Truly Scrumptious so his motherless children and father can have a female influence. Esparaza, like everyone else, is upstaged by the car. Erin Tilly as Truly Scrumptious does a reasonable Julie Andrews imitation. Philip Bosco plays Grandpa as the typical elderly man, apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The rest of the cast gives children’s theater performances that are simply embarrassing. Only Marc Kudisch as Baron Bomburst, the evil leader of the Vulgarians, and Jan Maxwell as his wife, are endurable. Kudisch, who in addition to his wonderful baritone is a terrific comic, romps through the role with childish abandon—the kind of teddy bear villain who won’t give the wee ones bad dreams. Maxwell channels Marlene Dietrich in all kinds of wonderful comic bits. The two of them, thankfully, figure prominently in the second act and whenever they are onstage, alleviate the tedium of this show.

Mark Henderson’s wonderful lighting and Anthony Ward’s scenery and costumes provide the real wit and magic in the show, which make one feel that once the design is set, the human element is virtually irrelevant and the show can be replicated over and over with very little change for the inevitable years that this show will run.

The car is the star of the show, with its own curtain call. The flying is spectacular, but it’s a long time coming, and by the end, it gets downright boring—like watching an amusement park ride go around and around. That’s really what this is, and I expect that in short order there will be a ride at one of the MGM amusement parks.

The real tragedy of this show, though, is that children having their first Broadway experience will want more mechanics, not theater. The eye is certainly tricked, but the heart is not, and the human magic that defines live theater is nowhere to be found here.

These last two major new musicals of the season couldn’t be more different. I imagine that they will each have their audiences, but for my money, I’ll take soul over machines any day.

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