Titanic CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG in Moorestown

by Jack Shaw

It was definitely family community theatre that Moorestown Theater Company is known for that I saw with my family tonight at the William Allen Middle School. CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG was an opportunity “for people of all ages, and especially families, to have fun participating in theatre together,” and a chance for friends and other family members to share that experience from the audience. With the 100+ cast members overflowing the stage this production had to be a “Titanic” undertaking–even with the double casting a several parts.

Cast members fly in that famous car, as Moorestown Theater Company mounts the area premiere of the musical, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, running through July 23 in Moorestown NJ!

Neither the original film, nor the play version of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG was a huge success, but this play provides an ample platform for this community theater’s purpose of promoting the theatre experience. The car, as in the film and play, was the star as it is supposed to be…and it didn’t have to audition.

This is the kind of community production that does not try to be art, but still needs an audience and seeks to entertain. There’s nothing wrong in that noble purpose. It is one way to ensure that people have an opportunity be on stage to do so without risk. Casting all who audition and requiring a parent to be in the show with children auditioning under a certain age, not only adds to the cast, but also ensures parents are available to keep them under control during the periods of waiting that is bound to occur during rehearsals (and performances). To defray the cost of building the set and renting costumes the theater charges a production fee of its participants.

So, it doesn’t seem fair to review CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG as I might another theatre performance, but I’ll mention a few things from my perspective in the audience. This is not meant as a criticism of the many fine actors and singers on stage, but more of the challenges associated with this kind of production.

My kids were to help with my review since this was a family reviewing affair, but it turned out to be three-hour show. Both my eleven-year-old and thirteen-year-old were begging to go to bed instead of staying up and giving me their thoughts. Both kids did comment to me about liking the costumes and the set. They were particularly impressed with the children, Jemima (Sophie Agnew) and Jeremy (Craig Lauer), Truly Scrumptious (Jaimie Geddes), and the Baron Bombast (Rick Williams) and Baroness Bombast (Debbi Nanni-Zacher).

“I can’t hear” was whispered often as “the orchestra was too loud or the singing too soft.” I noticed that particularly with Caracatacus (Stephen Gionta), whose character voice was soft as well as his singing voice, and missed some fine singing for lack of a better microphone or sound system. I also thought he wasn’t a strange enough character, but not everyone can be a “Dick Van Dyke.”

Rick Williams and Debbi Nanni-Zacher proved to have a great chemistry with fine acting and singing performances as well. There were some very good singers among the leads. I really liked both Stephen Gionta and Jaimie Geddes in the doll scene. I, too, thought the children, Sophie Agnew and Craig Lauer, were terrific at both acting and singing, right down to the accents that were lacking many other actors. The Vulgarians seemed to have a more consistent accent. Also, I appreciated David Bowman’s “Childcatcher” who carried the scary character in his every movement on stage as well as in his words.

I will say the costumes and set were lovely, for the most part, but the times between scenes was sometimes as long as a scene itself. The car seemed to have two positions on stage facing straight down center stage or stage left, which left the singers to sing directly to the audience or be in each other’s way in profile to the audience.

In trying to be fair in giving stage time to every actor, any scene that could have people in the background ended up having overflowing crowds. The choreographed dance numbers were simpler and appropriate for the less experienced actors, but do take away some interesting staging possibilities.

Quicker scene and costume changes could fix the length and pacing of the play, but with so many cast members and set changes backstage it’s hard to find the room, I’m sure.

It was clear the Moorestown Theater Company was successful in pleasing the audience this was intended for, but it wasn’t my cup of tea for a couple reasons–not related to reviewing.

One, I don’t care for the “pay to play” to gain theatre experience. There’s something to be said for the audition process and taking the risk of not getting a part, like it or not, that builds character and commitment to the art. Two, I don’t like the idea of treating this as a regular community theatre show; it should be promoted as it is–a community event or opportunity to share the theatre experience.

Regular theatre-goers will be disappointed if they are expecting a finely tuned production, and the theater will lose them as audience members for the shows that aren’t promoting the experience. To them, this show is like the Titanic, not just in proportion but in sinking the art. Kids are always adorable on stage–even when they are petrified and some should never have to go through it because mom or dad thinks it will build confidence. It can have the opposite effect.

To end on a happier note: the cast seemed to have a great time and showed great pride in their work. Individually, they are to be congratulated for their bravery alone to get in front of an audience and sing and dance. Many showed amazing talent and would have been cast in a competitive audition anyway.

It is hard for children to find the shows to audition for where they will be tested and learn from the actual theatre arts experience. It is equally hard to find acting or musical theatre schools where the instructors have a broad base of experience and do more than play theatre games. Usually the instructors are still pretty fresh themselves. So the Moorestown Theater Company isn’t completely wrong in its approach. For actors who want the life though, the real learning doesn’t start until they start taking the risks other actors do.

Music and Lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman
Book by Jeremy Sams
July 14-23, 2011
Moorestown Theater Company
William Allen Middle School
801 N. Stanwick Rd
Moorestown, NJ
856 778-8357

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