A thoroughly English production is slated to arrive in the Heartland this weekend — hopefully with a bang, if Ric Averill has anything to do with it.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the hit musical loosely based on the Ian Fleming novel (yes, he of “James Bond” fame) and, perhaps more closely, the 1968 film of the same name, opens Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center, complete with dastardly villains, oddball humor and its family-friendly mix of “sweetness and vulgarity.”
“This is the American version,” Averill, the Arts Center’s longtime artistic director of performing arts, says of the “tongue-in-cheek” production, which tells the story of a widowed, down-and-out inventor who builds a flying car to amuse his two young children.
Of course, excursions ensue, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (that’s the car's name) leads the family through a series of fantastical — and at times, harrowing — adventures.
Fans of the movie will recognize the familiar score by Academy Award-winning “Mary Poppins” composers Richard and Robert Sherman, performed in the Arts Center’s production by musical director Patricia Ahern and the Free State Liberation Orchestra.
The special effects are similarly “old school.” While the flying car doesn’t actually fly — “except in our imaginations,” Averill points out — the Arts Center crew uses green-screen technology to project images of moving landscapes behind the vehicle that create the illusion of movement.
The set, designed and built by Kansas City artist Juniper Tangpuz, is completely made out of cardboard — from the titular car to the haircutting machine to the telephone booth.
In the Lawrence Arts Center’s production, as in the movie and Fleming novel, “everything’s larger than life,” Averill says.
Those who watched the movie adaptation (co-written by Roald Dahl, which makes perfect sense when you think about it) may recall with horror the thoroughly creepy, long-nosed Child Catcher, who captures and detains children in an underground dungeon below the streets of Vulgaria. He’s still around in the musical version.
In “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the stakes are high — and very real — for the Potts kids, not unlike a “James Bond” novel or the child protagonists of Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda.”
“With Fleming and Dahl, nothing has to be particularly appropriate or whitewashed” for children, Averill says. “It’s downright dusty and gritty and fun and serious and zany, all at the same time,” he says of the musical.
The antagonists in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” are, in many ways, just as vile as any of the great “Bond” villains — albeit a tad more bumbling and humorous. As Averill puts it, “they’re on a family level of ‘Dr. No.’”
Unlike Fleming’s “James Bond” tales, this story does end happily ever after. For Caractacus Potts, the hapless inventor who finds new love after loss, and for his non-traditional family, which includes a zany grandfather, played by Averill, and a lovable dog.
In other words, “family is what you make of it,” Averill says. “The family that sings together and dances together and gets silly together, stays together.”
If you go:
- What: "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"
- Where: Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.
- When: The show opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. and runs until the Feb. 28. Check www.lawrenceartscenter.org for showtimes.
- Cost: Tickets cost $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for children/students. They can be purchased at www.lawrenceartscenter.org, in person or by calling 843-2787.
Once every year for seven decades, a shadowy figure dressed in black paid tribute to Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the author’s grave in Baltimore.
This mysterious ritual — which involved a toast of cognac and a gift of three roses left at Poe’s grave — occurred in the wee hours of the morning every Jan. 17 from 1949 until the day of Poe’s bicentennial in 2009.
The “Poe Toaster,” as he (or possibly she, I guess?) is affectionately known, could still be out there, for all we know.
In fact, Ric Averill even contemplated inviting the unnamed Poe fanatic to his newest production at the Lawrence Arts Center, though even the longtime artistic director of performing arts admits the plan may be a long shot.
That’s too bad, because Averill’s original creation, “Midnight Visit to the Grave of Poe: A Grotesque Arabesque” is, as you might’ve guessed from the title, inspired by the Poe Toaster’s ritual.
Averill describes “Midnight Visit,” which opened last week at the Lawrence Arts Center, as a “total operaesque experience of the life and works” of Edgar Allan Poe.
Nearly 15 years in the making, the show combines “musical theater, modern dance, opera, rock sensibilities and spectacular digital imagery” in what Averill calls a “very Freudian psychological exploration” of a deeply troubled — yet brilliant — man.
(Oh, you mean Poe had issues beyond the fact that he married his 13-year-old cousin?)
“The idea I had as an artist was to see if the Poe Toaster came to the grave one night and instead of just laying down the roses, he actually encounters the ghost of Poe,” says Averill, who wrote the script and the music (it’s got an “earthy, contemporary sound” that mixes traditional rock instrumentation with a Steinway piano, synthesizer and cello) for the show.
“Midnight Visit” is told in six movements, five of which are based on famous works by Poe: “Morella,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “Eleonora” and “Annabel Lee.”
Running through each is “this sense of loss and grief” triggered by the death of Poe’s mother, whom he lost at the age of 3 to tuberculosis.
Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe (she and Edgar’s father, David Poe, were both actors) died young, at 23. So too did Poe’s cousin-wife Virginia Clemm, who also succumbed to tuberculosis at 24.
Both women — or some fictionalized, abstract versions of them — appear as ghosts in “Midnight Visit” accompanied by modern dancers and Averill’s five-piece rock/classical band.
“There’s this theme of this beautiful mother that echoes through Poe’s work,” Averill says. “It’s this tragic theme of using the young woman who comes back from death to haunt (the protagonist) and to say, ‘You should be loyal to me and never love another.’”
By the end of the musical, the midnight visitor leaves Poe’s grave with a greater understanding of the man and his stories.
The show moves fast, Averill says, and with the constantly moving backdrop of creepy digital images created by artists Clare Doveton and Jessica Kolokol, “there’s always something going on”
As for the mysterious circumstances surrounding Poe’s death, no one knows for certain. The author’s alcoholism and opium addiction probably took a toll, Averill guesses, but he can’t be sure.
Averill says he’d love to see “Midnight Poe” enjoy a long life onstage. Right now, he’s thinking of following up on a couple of connections he’s fostered in Kansas City and Chicago.
“He was his own worst enemy,” Averill says of Poe, but, “What always fascinated me about Poe is just the beauty that can come out of that pain and that agony. It’s just astounding.”
"Midnight Visit to the Grave of Poe: A Grotesque Arabesque" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, aka Halloween (when guests are invited to wear their "best gothic Halloween costumes"), at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.
Tickets range from $10 to $25, and can be purchased at the box office, 940 New Hampshire St., or online at lawrenceartscenter.org.
For younger folks
"Midnight Visit," per Averill's description, is geared more toward adults and "sophisticated teens" than kiddos.
The Lawrence Arts Center's other spooky yet family-friendly production, "The Boy Who Left Home to Find out About the Shivers," also runs through Halloween. Tickets range from $8 to $12.