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Center Stage

A bang-bang-up job

12/9/2015

When an old show succeeds, it’s often got a new look. Trying out a fresh set designer, in fact, may be the best move the Playhouse made. For “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” Andrea Nice, based in New York, has dreamed up strange amalgamations that take you straight to the heart of things.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Des Moines Playhouse. www.desmoinesplayhouse.com. Wed., Dec. 9 - Fri., Dec. 18, 7 p.m. Sat. - Sun., Dec. 12-13 and 19-20, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Des Moines Playhouse. www.desmoinesplayhouse.com. Wed., Dec. 9 – Fri., Dec. 18, 7 p.m. Sat. – Sun., Dec. 12-13 and 19-20, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

At times, the set’s rainbow-striped tubes and dirty gray girders, speckled with players in blinky-bright costumes by Angela Lampe, suggest a candy shop in an old garage. The same spirit infuses the car itself, with its polished wood paneling and flaring maroon and gold wings (assembled in Chicago and trucked to town). Overall, the look’s just right — ungainly, yet delightful.

“Chitty Chitty” began as therapy for Ian Fleming, the man who gave us James Bond. Late in life, following a heart attack, Fleming turned his hand to a children’s book.  The 1968 movie soon followed, with its catchy tunes and almost-adult humor, much of it written by Roald Dahl (“Matilda” and many more).

The stage version includes more song and dance but remains comfortable as an old shoe. You never fret much over the inventor, Caractacus Potts, no matter how his challenges mount up. His kids, his dad, his girl Truly Scrumptious, and even his super-souped-up jitney all fall into the clutches of the goony Vulgarians, but  you never suffer any serious doubts.

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ChittyfallcloseupWhich is as it should be in a Playhouse “Holiday Classic.” This one doesn’t deliver the musical “wow” of the recent “In the Woods” or the screwball yucks of “The Addams Family,” yet it comes through with enough of both. The big numbers never fail to fetch a grin, even the irrelevant balderdash like “Me Ol’ Bamboo,” again demonstrating the gift director John Viars has for crowd scenes.

As for the quieter, more sympathetic moments, Dani Boal had those covered. She brought out a girlish, dimpled quality, something she couldn’t draw on in a take-charge role like Mary Poppins. She even reined in her big voice — though not, thank goodness, in a rousing number like “Toot Sweet.”

More frolicsome, and a counterpoint to Boal, was Peter Dean as the villain. When Mel Brooks put Frankenstein in a tuxedo, he could’ve been thinking of Dean as the Vulgarian Baron, throwing his weight around goofily at his birthday party. The scene also played up the contrast between Dean’s rich basso profundo and his bubblegum-colored robe.

Smaller pleasures included Eric Deutz and Alex Clifton as kicky but dimwitted spies. Clifton proved a comic revelation.  Still, the outstanding minor role was the Childcatcher, which Brett Spahr brought off as a nightmare in black and white, oozing toxins with every offer of candy. Spahr has stolen his share of scenes before, and it’s a testimony to the strength of this production that he didn’t run off with the whole play.

Overheard in the Lobby: Dixie Longate (aka the male actor, Kris Andersson) is back at the Temple Theater for a month. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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