This big-money, effects-heavy English import musical is a mind-altering spin down the often small-scale highway of children's theatre.
If you don't recall the film (I didn't), it involves an English father and inventor named Caractacus Potts who invents a flying car, falls in love, and then is forced to fight evildoers from the nation of Vulgaria who covet the car. Complicating matters, there exists in Vulgaria a dastardly baroness who despises children and therefore jails them through the services of a "childcatcher." The Vulgarians mistakenly capture Potts' father, and the Potts crew travels to Vulgaria in the car to save the old man -- and the free world, in a sense.
Sounds plotty, doesn't it? It seemed it on stage as well, though when the famous songs and outrageous effects were at the forefront, the audience was mesmerized. At other moments, the younger ones in particular seemed restless, perhaps because they were having trouble fully absorbing the goings on.
It's hard to avoid the shadow of Dick Van Dyke (Caractacus in the film), and Raúl Esparza is smart not to try to replicate Van Dyke's inimitable style, managing to create a touching reality. At times, though, Esparza seems lost in the large space, with his words coming out garbled and rushed.
Director Adrian Noble's other performers compensate, though they, too, push the pace. Philip Bosco as the elder Potts is charming and Erin Dilly as Truly is scrumptious. The Vulgarians are all vivid, with Chip Zien blazing an especially impressive trail as Goran. Most striking is Jan Maxwell as the baroness, who displays the kind of presence and comic timing that would have been useful at the center of the show.
This review first appeared on Backstage.com on 5/2/05.