A Fantasmagorical Production

Sometimes, you go to the theatre to be intellectually challenged. Sometimes you go to see a familiar story. Sometimes, you simply go to be entertained with engaging music and a light story. I’m pleased to say that the Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi‘s production of the musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“, which opened tonight at the Simi Cultural Arts Center, is thoroughly entertaining. In fact, you might even say it is fantasmagorical.

Let me step back a bit. It has been years since we had gone to the Simi Cultural Arts Center. Our last visit was back in 2007 for Edwin Drood, and before that for Thoroughly Modern Millie the same year. Both productions were good for community theatre, but didn’t create the strong desire to be regulars there. However, when I saw that the stage version of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was going to be local, I decided it was time to give them another try. This is one of only two productions of the show in the US this year; the stage version hasn’t been at a major venue in Los Angeles that I can recall. I am very glad I gave them the try: Actors Rep of Simi has improved tremendously, and did an excellent job with this production, especially considering the limitations that their facility creates for them. So before I jump into the review proper, let me summarize: this production is worth seeing.

I should note, however, that you don’t go to see CCBB for the plot. The original story by Ian Fleming was Fleming’s only children’s story inbetween everthing that was James Bond. MGM was able to steal away the Sherman Brothers from Disney when the book was adapted for the screen, which created a memorable score in 1964. More recently, the story was adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams and Ray Roderick, but the story is essentially the film story… and that story is very slight. Crackpot inventor Caractacus Potts is convinced by his two children, Jeremy and Jemima, to rescue a former racing car from the junkyard. This car is the target of spies from Vulgaria, who want it to restore national pride in the Grand Prix. To try to raise money, Potts attempts to sell a candy invention to the Scrumptious Family, based on his meeting Truly Scrumptious. That doesn’t work, but he eventually buys the car. Meanwhile, the spies steal Pott’s father, thinking he’s the inventor and take him to Vulgaria, where children are forbidden. The family goes to rescue him, the car floats, the car flies. and hijinx ensue. You can get more details in the film synopsis, but there are some slight differences.

As I said, you don’t go to this show for the plot. The plot is silly—it’s a children’s story. Some of the songs are clearly filler, but they are just so fun. The music is infectious, joyful, and sticks in your head (what would you expect from the team that wrote small world). [I should note that Richard Sherman was actually in the audience tonight, and I did go up and thank him for his music].

The acting in this show is spot on: the actors are clearly having fun doing the show, and they are performing well and know all their lines down pat (something I don’t always see even in professional productions). In the lead posiution is Kristopher Kyer (the only equity actor) as Caractacus Potts. This man channels Dick Van Dyke in acting, singing, and comic timing. He is just a joy to watch, and a delight in the role. My only quibble is minor: his kids have British accents; his father has a British accent, but Caractacus—an American accent. But that is truly minor. Speaking of Truly, she is played by newcomer Heather Barnett. Barnett has a lovely voice, and plays and moves well against Kyer’s Potts. Supporting these two were Carter Thomas as Jeremy Potts and Natalie Esposito as Jemima Potts (these two alternate with Stanley Miller and Rachel Albrecht, who we did not see). Thomas and Esposito both gave strong performances: singing, dancing, movement, and acting were all great. All four of these leads were just joys to watch.

In the secondary tier, we had David Gilchrist as Grandpa Potts. We’ve seen Gilchrist before at CMT, where he was strong, and he continued that tradition here giving a playful character to the role. On the more comic-evil side, we had Danielle Judovits as the Baronness and John McCool Bowers as the Baron, who both played the roles for their comic potential. Also notable for their comic roles were the two spies, John Dantona as Boris and John David Wallis as Goran, who again played the comedy to a hilt. Not strictly a comic role, but a role that was suitably played for laughs as well, was George Chavez, who we know from REP East, as the Childcatcher.

Rounding out the cast were: Bart Sumner (Toymaker), Genevieve Levin (Violet, Adult Ensemble), Larry Shilkoff (Chef/Turkey Farmer), Chris Carnicelli (Coggins/Sid), Adam Friedman (Ensemble), Alesandra Shultz (Dance Ensemble), Ava Miele (Ensemble), Melissa Miller (Ensemble), Amanda Drewes (Ensemble), Olivia Miele (Ensemble), Anthony Valdez (Ensemble), Kimberly Kiley (Dance Emsemble), Emerson Oliver (Ensemble), Isabella Phillips (Ensemble), Rebecca Thomas (Dance Ensemble), Sara Gilbert (Ensemble), Gabriella Friedman (Ensemble), Haley Gilchrist (Ensemble), Madeline Gambon (Ensemble), Zach Kaufer (Ensemble). Mimi Mize (Ensemble), and Kassie Bales (Ensemble).

The production was directed by David Daniels, who did an excellent job of both bringing out the characters from this regional theatre team (i.e., he brought out great performances), as well as using the limited basic auditorium setup at the Simi Valley CAC to its best advantage. Aiding him was Rebecca Castells, who did the Choreography. The dancing in this was excellent—in particular, I would like to highlight the numbers “Me Ol’ Bamboo” and “The Bombie Samba”, which were very well moved.

Musically, the performance was under the musical direction of Matthew Park, who led the large volunteer orchestra located in the front of the stage: Cary Ginnell (Reed I), Ron Munn (Reed I), Dylan Regalado (Reed II), Bernard Selling (Reed III), Janet Stuhr (Reed III), Mike Munson (Reed III), Rob Sack (Trumpet I), Mel Batorr (Trumpet I), John Hansen (Trumpet II), Richard Nevarez (Trumpet II), Travis Thomas (Trombone), Clary McCarter (Trombone), Jerrry Lasnikm (Horn), Susan Freece (Horn), Lance Merrill (Piano), Matthew Park (Piano), Kevin Hart (Bass), Jodie Morse (Percussion), and Lucas Mille (Drums). I particuarly want to highlight Jodie Miller, who was fascinating to watch with all her percusion: her face was just so interesting.

Technically, this team didn’t have a lot to work with. Simi CAC doesn’t have a lot of fly space, there are limited lights (a few leicos, two movers). But they made it work, including a pretty good GEN11 Chitty Chitty car. Credit goes first and foremost to Sean P. Harrington, the production designer. Also deserving of credit was Lori Lee Gordon, the costume designer, Lacey Stewart, the lighting designer, Evan Acosta, who did the CG Animation Projections, Will Shupe, the technical director, and the uncredited sound designer. There wasn’t a single microphone glitch in this entire performance. Great job!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” runs through December 23, 2011 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, with additional performances on 12/10 and 12/17 at 2pm and 12/22 at 7:30pm. It is worth seeing. Tickets are available through Simi Arts; they are also available on Goldstar. ETA: Actors Rep Theatre of Simi has also announced their 2012 season: Avenue Q (Feb 26-April 1, 2012); To Kill a Mockingbird (June 2-July 8, 2012); The Music Man (July 21-August 26, 2012; and Spring Awakening (Oct 27-Dec 2, 2012). Of these, we’re interested in To Kill a Mockingbird if we have time, as we’ve seen the other musicals. I am curious how they will do Spring Awakening“, given that Simi Valley is a relatively conservatve town. I’ll also note that SVCA (Simi Valley Cultural Arts) will be presenting Hairspray from Jan 7-Feb 12, 2012.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Thanksgiving weekend brings two productions: “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson on Friday and the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. The first weekend of December brings “Lost and Unsung“, a celebration of music cut from musicals, at LA City College. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The end of December should bring Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (Hottix on sale 11/22). The remainder of December is unscheduled, but there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.