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Arts & Entertainment, etc.

Reviews: 'Chitty,' Patti, etc.

April 29, 2009
A few quick reviews that couldn't fit into the print IBJ:

--If you liked the chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera," and the helicopter in "Miss Saigon," you may love the title car in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," which is parked at Clowes Hall for a week while on its national tour. The car is as shiny and magical as you might remember and its flying could make Mary Martin jealous.

Unfortunately, the car does not sing and it doesn't dance. It doesn't spout laugh lines and it doesn't pull on the emotions. It's a prop in a musical -- a tired musical whose book seems to be written by people who don't care about coherence. It's a prop in a show whose choreography is uninspired and whose touring cast offers paint-by-numbers performances (the couple playing the royal Vulgarians are particularly unwatchable -- and given two second act numbers). It's a prop in a show whose sound technicians seem to care little about the words actually being heard.

If you have fondness for the original film, I'm guessing it's because of the car itself, for Dick Van Dyke's performance, and/or because some of the songs are still lodged in your brain. To be sure, some of those Sherman Brothers tunes are fine -- the sweet "Hushabye Mountain," to name one -- but nobody half as charming as Van Dyke is anywhere to be seen.

So what's left is the very cool car that couldn't keep the Broadway production from tanking, losing its entire $15 million investment. And the NYC version at least had such notable as Raul Esparza, Philip Bosco, Chip Zien and Marc Kudisch in the cast. What we've been given is a first rate vehicle in a third rate vehicle. In this "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," the car is the only thing that soars.

--Last Friday, Clowes Hall hosted a one-night only performance by Patti LuPone, whose "Coulda Woulda Shoulda" show focused on songs from shows she never actually performed in. The fun format didn't keep her from delivering showstoppers from shows she did do--including "Gypsy" and "Evita"-- but much of the pleaure came from the unexpected choices and the very funny stories they came with.

I had the pleasure of offering a pre-show talk on LuPone's career before the show, which would have made it all the more frustrating had LuPone failed to deliver or coasted through the evening. But there was no sign of compromise here. A solid pro, LuPone was in stellar voice, clear as a bell, and made me regret even more having found excuses year after year not to see this one-of-a-kind talent before, if not on Broadway than at her usual summer stint at Ravinia in Chicago. (For info on this August's gig, click here.) Here was a well-earned standing ovation.

--Also last weekend, the Cabaret at the Connoisseur Room brought to town David Burnham, who recently played boy lead Fiyero in the New York company of "Wicked," and helped lead the cast of "The Light in the Piazza" at Lincoln Center. As I've mentioned previously, this new format for America Cabaret Theatre is going to live or die based on the trust that audiences develop for the company in selecting talent. And once again, the choice was a solid one.

Burnham soared in songs from the above shows, creatively pairing his "Wicked" tune with "If I Only Had a Brain. He breathed new life into the "Hello Dolly!" standard "It Only Takes a Moment," effectively pulled off the bait-and-switch novelty tune "I Think About Sex," roused the already up crowd with his take on the Sinatra classic "That's Life," and offered a lovely "Younger Than Springtime" (turning things over to personable pianist Christopher Denny for some hilarious background on that song). In lesser hands, Burnham's habit of holding notes after Denny played his last note would seem showboating. The charming Burnham just seemed to be having a good time, unafraid to show off his gifts.

Only at the end of the show did the song selection begin to wobble. It would be harsh to call his "Music of the Night" pandering, but it felt more like an audition than a heartfelt choice. Tears were wrung -- from performer and audience -- with the David Phelps' song "Fly Again," but Burnham's sincerity couldn't mask the maudlin lyrics and arrangement. And I'm still baffled by why so many cabaret singers seem to gravitate toward the overwritten John Bucchino song "Grateful." But these were minor issues with an otherwise winning set.

Next up for the Cabaret, Lee Lessack with a program of Johnny Mercer music on May 15-16. Info here.

So did you catch any of the above? Your thoughts?
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