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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hit in London

LONDON (AP) _ The stage version of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" has emerged as the year's biggest musical hit in London, where the tale about a magical car looks set to soar at the London Palladium for many a season to come.

The $9 million production received mixed reviews when it opened April 16, but it has since been building toward a daily box office of more than $750,000 and an advance ticket sale of nearly $15 million.

"I just loved the material when I was offered it," says director Adrian Noble, who found himself shepherding a daunting technical challenge through six weeks of rehearsal and a month of previews.

The result is a busy, technically sophisticated, very white-bread show whose star is a $1.1 million winged Fiberglas car that floats through the theater. But the car is not the only showy set piece. There's the even more extraordinary 90-foot flight to the roof of the Palladium by performer Richard O'Brien, whose spindly Childcatcher makes a gravity-defying exit, hoisted aloft in a net balloon.

"I don't accomplish it as much as go through it," O'Brien says. "Given the choice, I wouldn't want to do that exit, (but) once you're in that net, you keep your head in front of you." (Translation: Don't look down.)

In any case, O'Brien said the net may actually be more pleasant an environment than the car itself: "It's terribly uncomfortable, that car; it looks superb, but it's Fiberglas made to look like leather."

On the show's second night, the car refused to work at all, which left over 2,200 people no choice but to go home disappointed when the show was canceled. Noble says he geared the production toward a particular market. "I had a little family in my head," says the 51-year-old director, who has two children, ages 5 and 8, with his wife, actress Joanne Pearce. His thoughts were of "a mom and dad and two kids who hadn't been to the theater in their lives before and had saved up to see this show. I wanted them to have the most exciting time of their lives when they went to see it."

The show has given a boost to British musicals, which lately have not been too successful. Even composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh, who were among the architects of the British musical boom of the 1980s, bombed with their latest productions, "The Beautiful Game" and "The Witches of Eastwick," respectively.

Only "Mamma Mia!" _ with its score of ABBA hits _ has set the West End afire, traveling on to equal success on Broadway.

"Chitty" is based on the 1968 movie musical that starred Dick Van Dyke as eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts and Sally Ann Howes as his beloved Truly Scrumptious. With his motherless children, Jemima and Jeremy, Truly and the dotty Grandpa Potts, Caractacus drives Chitty through a series of adventures. Chitty's passengers wind up battling the evil Childcatcher and the child-hating baron and baroness of Vulgaria, a weirdly veiled Nazi state of sorts, who want the car.

Michael Ball stars as Potts and newcomer Emma Williams is the clarion- voiced Truly. Other cast members include Brian Blessed as Baron Bomburst, Nichola McAuliffe as Baroness Bomburst and Anton Rodgers as Grandpa Potts.

The stage adaptation includes many of the songs heard in the movie, which is based on a book by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. The production includes Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman's familiar title song, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," as well as their "Truly Scrumptious, " "You Two" and "Hushabye Mountain." A few new numbers have been added.

"The result is in every respect superior to the original," wrote The Guardian's Michael Billington.

Added critic Alastair Macaulay of The Financial Times, "Less than 10 minutes into the stage version, I was in love ... (the show) has a lit-from-within sweetness that I don't recall from the movie."

However, Susannah Clapp of The Observer wrote, "It's hard to find an unnauseating feature."

What might Fleming, who died in 1964, the year his book came out, think of the stage extravaganza?

"I think he'd have been highly amused that his fairy story ... had been expanded to such an extent," said his niece, actress Lucy Fleming.

And the flying car? "Uncle Ian was always fascinated by gadgetry," says the writer's niece.

"He would have adored all that." ___

On the Net:
MATT WOLF, Associated Press Writer, New 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' a Hit. , AP Online, 05-01-2002.

The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996