What I tell the cast is ‘Look, this is a fun, entertaining show. We’re not changing the world. We are providing entertainment, and if we can do that heart, I think that’s an important element that we need to bring. —John Sweeney
WEST VALLEY CITY — In a side-by-side comparison, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Mary Poppins” share more than a few similarities.
The two film versions were released in the '60s and were adapted to the stage in the last decade, both feature songs from the songwriting team of brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, both titular characters have the ability to fly and both films starred Dick Van Dyke.
“It’s an interesting combination of coincidences,” says John Sweeney, who directs the regional premiere of the big Broadway musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at the Hale Centre Theatre.
Referencing the charismatic actor’s notoriously maligned Cockney accent in “Mary Poppins,” Sweeney adds with a laugh, “It’s funny that Van Dyke, after ‘Mary Poppins,’ chose not to have an accent in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ — while other actors around him had very strong British accents. But honestly, the guy is a triple threat like no other. He is truly special.”
Sweeney is pleased with the actors cast in the Van Dyke role of quirky Caractacus Potts. “It’s amazing that we found two men in Ames Bell and David Smith who literally look like the clones of Dick Van Dyke in the way they perform,” he says. “You will be amazed with their singing, acting and dancing abilities.”
To continue the comparisons, both the original stories of “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” were written by Brits. Children’s author P.L. Travers created the famous nanny while Ian Fleming took a break from the gadgetry of the James Bond character he invented to write “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car” for his 12-year-old son, Caspar.
Fleming’s thin 1964 tale is about a widowed inventor and his children, Jeremy and Jemima, who salvage a scrapped race car only to discover its magical properties that whisk them away on adventures.
The Broadway production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” received five Tony Award nominations during its successful 2005 run. The show features memorable songs, including “Truly Scrumptious,” “Toot Sweets” and “Hushabye Mountain.” There’s also the Oscar-nominated title song, the infectious tune about “our fine four-fendered friend” that is “uncategorical, a fuel-burning oracle.”
“There are songs that you can walk out of the theater singing and humming to yourself. I like to think that this means that you were entertained by the show,” Sweeney explains. “Other folks might get something stuck in their head and then complain endlessly about it.”
Granted, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is not a serious show, but bright and breezy clap-along family fare that results in a sit-back-and-enjoy-it evening of charming fun.
“What I tell the cast is ‘Look, this is a fun, entertaining show. We’re not changing the world. We are providing entertainment, and if we can do that heart, I think that’s an important element that we need to bring,’ ” he says.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” also famously features the titular car that magically takes flight — an essential prop that was derided by critics as the true star of the show. Replicating the car’s flying effect and Caractacus’ other inventions required a technical effects team of 13 for the Hale production.
“Ultimately if we can deliver an entertaining story with the energy of the dancing, the tenderness between the father and the kids and certainly with the catchy music, then the flying car will be the entertaining aspect that we might have come to see but what we’ll take away is that the cast became the heart of the show,” Sweeney says.
If you go
What: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”
Where: Hale Centre Theatre
When: Feb. 15-April 13 Mondays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Saturdays at 12:30 and 4 p.m. Two Saturday 9 a.m. matinees are designed for children 3 and older on March 16 and 23.
How much: $28-$16
Tickets: 801-984-9000 or halecentretheatre.org