Resorts World Manila’s ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ is zany, weird, and ridiculously over the top. It raises more questions than it answers, yet against all these odds, or perhaps because of them – it still works marvelously.
A magical tale
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the name given to an old race car that’s been relegated to a garage heap. When inventor Caractacus Potts restores it for his children, they discover that it has magical powers and is being sought out by the awful Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria. Thus begins their extraordinary adventure where they meet other colorful characters like the Baroness, the Child Catcher, and their harebrained cohorts.
The musical numbers are grand, Mio Infante’s scenic design rich and dare we say scrumptious (the set for the ‘Toot Sweets’ number alone is an eye-opening wonder for both kids and adults), Nancy Crowe’s choreography exuberant, Bonsai Cielo’s costumes divine, and the songs (from the same songwriting team of Mary Poppins) memorable. It would be almost impossible to leave the theater without the theme song stuck in your head. The flying and ocean sequences are magical, thanks to Jonjon Villareal’s light design and GA Fallarme’s projections.
In a story as whimsical as this, it’s the villains who have a bigger opportunity for noteworthy performances. Lorenz Martinez’ turn as the Child Catcher is truly terrifying. Myrene Santos’ hair and make-up make Martinez unrecognizable underneath the voluminous hair, hooked nose, and terrifying eyes. With his high-pitched voice, he does justice to one of the scariest villains in children’s books. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, in a role that seems tailor-made for her, deliciously embraces the camp of the Baroness, exaggerated accent and all.
But it’s the two bumbling Vulgarian henchmen, who bring the house down with just the right amount of villainous idiocy. Whether delivering quips with impeccable timing or engaging in physical comedy, they play off each other so perfectly. Even when it’s just the two of them on stage, they hold the audience completely in thrall (make sure you’re in your seat well before the second act opens).
Finding humor in the absurd
There’s a lot of wordplay and sly winks meant for the adults in the theater. And much of the humor can be called quintessentially British, with its almost absurdist and Monty Python-esque tone. The situations upend everything that should make sense in a well-ordered world, but when you have a car that flies (or floats, as the occasion demands), an unhinged ruler of a comically-named country (Vulgarian culture can only be described as vulgar), all rational thinking goes out the window. Yulo, Alonso, and Atadero regularly break the fourth wall, and on the surface it does not do much for the plot, but that’s precisely the point. This is a crazy and hilarious ride that we’ve signed up for.
In a way, the straight man in a fantastical story has the hardest job. Underneath it all, there is still a story about a family that’s sorely lacking a woman’s love. The song ‘Truly Scrumptious’ is a chance to show the audience why the love story between Truly and the Potts family works. If they had dialed down the hamminess a bit, it would have been more believable. Instead, Yanah Laurel and the children (Isabeli Araneta-Elizalde and Albert Silos) barrelled through the number, effectively killing any semblance of nuance. There is a little too much garishness in Laurel’s approach to Truly, probably because the character is supposed to be forward for her time. This works to perfection in the ‘Doll on a Music Box’ number, which absolutely calls for it. But everywhere else, it comes across as overly stagy.
On the other hand, Gian Magdangal’s portrayal does not have enough of the “crackpot” in Caractacus Potts. His name is a play on the word, but the only way we know he’s eccentric is because we are told (literally, as it’s one of the first lines in the musical), not shown. He nails the tender parts of the character, evidenced by the number ‘You Two’, but there was not much of the dichotomy in this crazy inventor who allows his kids to play truant, yet no doubt loves them very much.
Looking beyond unanswered questions
There is some ambiguity in the story, which is unsurprising considering that the source material is a screenplay by Roald Dahl, the same man who brought us another vaguely sinister character in Willy Wonka. Is there a deeper meaning behind the Baron’s obsession with toys? Why does the Baroness have a Brazilian dance number? Is it necessary for the plot? No, not really. It’s funny simply because it is.
It is never really explained why the Baroness abhors children, and it would be perfectly all right to leave this among the many mysteries of the story. However, towards the end she drops an almost throwaway line that makes the audience question any theories they may have had about her.
The cast does not employ an English accent, which makes it baffling why Grandpa Potts retains his. And because most of the humor in the show is predicated on British culture, the question of accents contributes to some inconsistency in the show. And perhaps the strangest part of all is that for all the grandeur of the stage design, the reveal of the revamped Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, after the dilapidated heap is repaired by Caractacus Potts, leaves us wanting a bit more. It’s a moment that deserves appreciative gasps from the audience, but it falls flat.
But at a certain point these quibbles are overshadowed by the sheer joy of the Jaime del Mundo-directed production. Perhaps the secret to why this Chitty works is precisely because of its absurdity. By the end, when the people (and the previously hidden children) of Vulgaria overthrow the Baron and Baroness with nothing more than what amounts to surprise, everything has devolved to outright chaos.
The company just takes the material, flaws and all, and runs with it. They have fun and embrace all the craziness, and that translates on the stage. And when you commit to it the way the cast does, you’re sure to enjoy it. If all Chitty does is make you laugh and enjoy yourself, then it will have done a magnificent job. After all, what’s wrong with letting go and simply having fun?
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang runs at the Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World Manila until November 12, 2017.