For every person who claims that Tempe's Gammage Auditorium is a marvel of acoustic excellence, you can probably find one who's been subjected to plays that sound like talking mud. Apparently, it has to do with where you're sitting and what kind of performance it is -- whether it's instrumental or vocal, and where the sounds fall in the audible-by-humans range.
So I'll give the touring production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which I saw on its first night in the Valley, a bit of a pass -- showing up at a different venue every week has to be challenging, and it's harder for musicians and actors to adjust than it is for the sound crew, too. The theater had completely run out of assisted listening devices at 15 minutes before curtain, which makes me think that regular patrons have gotten used to dealing with the situation.
I can't entirely blame hinky acoustics for terrible accents, emotionally uninflected line delivery, and swallowed punch lines, though. (Pin it on either the director or the stage manager, who's supposed to ride herd on this stuff on the road.) Still, I'm glad the show does contain enough straight dialogue that my companion and I could glean sufficient plot and exposition points between unintelligible stretches of bland singing.
Then there's the decision to have the orchestra bravely play the overture and entr'acte in front of a closed curtain. Really? I know that used to be the norm, but there are a bunch of people under 10 years old in the audience. Okay, maybe the kids were polite enough to sit calmly with no visual enhancements, but those of us over 40 got plenty fidgety. Really.
One of the few scenes that were easy to hear and follow, the "Toot Sweets" number in the Scrumptious candy factory, has yummy costumes, cute choreography, and a completely biffed ending. (Hint: Everyone's supposed to be upset and discouraged. Keep that in mind, or the next two scenes will make even less sense.) Bless their hearts, the people who put this together didn't make it easy for themselves -- when a pack of super-cute dogs runs on stage, it's hard to sell it as a setback.
This musical-based-on-a-movie has songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, who wrote the songs from Mary Poppins and a bunch of other fine Disney properties, but that's not necessarily a great thing. It means, for example, that someone has pretty much hosed off the chimney sweeps and plunked them down in a fun fair ("Me Ol' Bamboo," a song about the importance of sticks, shafts, staffs, and canes to the English working class, as far as we could tell). And "Truly Scrumptious" just emphasizes that this family-friendly story was originally written by Ian Fleming, who apparently named every female character the way he named Bond girls.
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Kudos to the cast, because many of them do seem to be doing their best with some very weird characters and situations. In addition to the super-cute trained dogs, you've got Steve Wilson, who makes Caractacus Potts into a total DILF, and Vulgarian spies Boris and Goran, played by Dirk Lumbard and Scott Cote. The program says Cote played Gus Gus the mouse in a cruise-ship stage adaption of Disney's Cinderella, and he's exactly like the cartoon Gus, which is why I mention it. Simultaneously compact, goofy, and limber as a gymnast, he milks his scenes for all they're worth, and the audience appreciated it.
Unfortunately, Lumbard and Cote were victims of the sound problems, especially in their duet "Act English," but their comedic vulnerability carries the show when all else fails and you're just waiting for the flying car. Who is also really good.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang continues through Sunday, June 21, at Gammage Auditorium, 1200 South Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets range from $23.25 to $71.50; order here or call 480-965-3434. As the Gammage Web site states, the main parking lot usually fills up an hour before curtain -- so wear walking shoes. And hey, ASU? Tempe arranges shuttles from that faraway parking at their arts center. I'm just saying.
Tonight, June 17, the Kids' Night on Broadway program is sponsoring free admission for each child who's accompanied by a paying adult. And for the 7 p.m. performance on Sunday, June 21, buy a ticket for yourself and get your dad in for half price on selected seats. Find promotional codes for both offers, and more details, here, and if the discount codes don't work at the Ticketmaster site, cancel your online order and call the Gammage box office for help.