It’s a familiar scene - parents and children milling around performers fresh from their final bows asking for autographs and posing for photos. Not only the stars mind you but members of the ensemble are there as well to greet family, friends and audience members. It’s an impressive sight. The children all excited as they clutch the programme with a whole back page devoted for autographs. The cast are still in costume and makeup, no doubt amped with adrenaline immediately after the matinee performance. There’s a real buzz in the air.
Stray Cats Theatre Company and the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre sure know how to put on a crowd pleasing, family friendly spectacle. This is the third in what I’ll refer to as Stray Cats’ Classic English Family Musical Trilogy that commenced with last year’s Oliver!, continued with Mary Poppins earlier this year and ended with a punctuation mark as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took flight.
If one of the roles of community theatre is to engage with and entertain its local residents then these productions are among the finest examples we have in the state. Usually a run will only be four to five shows over one weekend but they are always well attended and sit comfortably in the spacious Performing Arts Centre. The local community support is excellent and the venue is a jewel only an hour south of Perth. That support is rewarded with outstanding entertainment.
As I was sitting upstairs in the front row of the dress circle looking down on the opening scene it struck me that these shows are the only time I see upwards of 60 performers on stage. It simply doesn’t happen anywhere else. Laudable is how many are young children. Even more remarkable is the attention to detail for the costuming of every single person on stage from the youngest to the oldest. There’s no scrimping here. They all have a role and they all look the part.
Director Karen Francis always dares to be ambitious in the scale of her productions; from the large casts to the impressive sets and lighting design to the choice of musical itself. Visually they are a feast. This was full of wonderfully colourful backdrops and the transition between scenes was slick as set components were dropped in behind a temporarily lowered screen as the orchestra played on. The centrepiece though was the car itself. Beautifully recreated and functional it drew appropriate applause when it lifted, tilted and ‘sprouted wings’ with the Potts family and Truly on-board.
An occasional criticism I have had in the past is that the orchestras for these productions can be variable in quality. Any fear of this was quickly dispelled in the Overture. Under the baton of assistant musical director Vanitha Hart they played very well; the best musical accompaniment since 2012’s Hairspray for mine.
To the performances and a few of the headliners from Mary Poppins featured again. Jon Lambert played Caractacus Potts, another father with two precocious children and, dare I say it, using the exact same accent as his Mister Banks. This was only a minor complaint, quickly forgotten, as he gives yet another charming performance. Lambert’s solo number Hushabye Mountain was his standout vocal moment and a highlight of the show.
Kristie Gray’s run of memorable characters continues moving from Mary Poppins to Truly Scrumptious with aplomb. Gray has a beautiful singing voice with excellent clarity and power; the featured solo Lovely, Lonely Man a highpoint as was her Doll On A Music Box. In terms of singing ability she was closely followed by Kim Moore as Baroness Bomburst who featured in flamboyant number The Bombie Samba and worked well with Joshua Towns (as the Baron) in Chu-Chi Face.
Further Mary Poppins alums, Daniel Nixon and Nicholas Gaynor, provided great humour as the bumbling Vulgarian spies tasked to acquire the flying car. Scott Hansen added some vaudeville style menace as the Child Catcher while Rory Ellis was solid as the Toy Maker. Then there were the Potts children played with great flair by Sebastian Cruse and Marissa Pereira.
There was plenty of colour and movement epitomised by another highlight - Me Ol’ Bamboo - and the aforementioned The Bombie Samba. In many ways it’s a silly story with plenty of farce but darker moments as well as we discover the children banished to the sewers. It all has a happy ending with the audience clapping along to the title number as the family fly safely home.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is fabulous family entertainment and I felt quite invigorated as I left the venue. It comes as no surprise to me then that Francis has acquired the amateur rights to the blockbuster Wicked, the definition of a big, crowd pleasing musical. Given her track record it will be fascinating to see how she tackles the technical requirements to make that show literally fly as well. On the evidence of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang it will be something to see!
Originally written by Ian Fleming with the script adapted by Ray Roderick from the MGM Motion Picture of the same name; Music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; Directed by Karen Francis with Choreography by Ashleigh Riley and Megan Doohan, Musical Direction by David Hicks and Vocal Direction by Kristie Gray; and starring Jon Lambert, Kristie Gray, Sebastian Cruse, Marissa Pereira, Peter Sydney-Smith, Nicholas Gaynor, Daniel R Nixon, Kim Moore and Joshua Towns.