Perhaps you've heard that a Broadway show is more of a tourist trap spectacle than an actual theatrical experience? Or that Broadway is more like Vegas now. Or that Vegas is the new Broadway? These are not false memes even if they don't tell the entire truth of it. Most seasons brings exceptions to any rule about the junk food glitz of Broadway shows as opposed to providing a satisfying theatrical dinner. Shows that are basically spectacle for spectacles sake weren't born in the 80s when Andrew Lloyd Webber took over or when Disney bought up the place in the 90s. Even if it feels like they were. What were things like the Ziegfeld Follies if not for spectacles?
So the good news aboutChitty Chitty Bang Bang is that its spectacle is actually spectacular: The flying car is a wonder. A far more impressive bit of stage f/x magic than Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors the season prior or Elphaba's very celebrated 'Defying Gravity' number in Wicked. I still prefer my stage effects in a lower key (the giant's voice and shadow in Into the Woods for example: Very impressive/evocative but it didn't take over the whole show) but when your show's whole hook is a flying car, well... you'd better deliver. In other good news Tony nominated Jan Maxwell and Marc Kudisch as the Baroness & Baron are both hilarious (Maxwell is even inspired, I would venture to say). They're comic duet totally energizes the show in the second act. Last night the show desperately needed the boost.
You see, the bad news is that spectacle shows only achieve 100% spectaculaciousness if the audience is at capacity. You need that electric rush that comes from huge hordes of people oohing, aahing, clapping, laughing, or just generally feeling it. Otherwise shows like this read as a little desperate. All that energy expended onstage with no matching volley from the other side? A little painful. Also painful was the miscasting of Raúl Esparza. I didn't believe this going in since I really and truly love Mr. Esparza...who has been a must-see performer for quite a while. But unfortunately it's true. This show needs light and airy or goofy performances and he has too much natural intensity to work within the context of silly comedy that supports spectacle. (Everyone is really supporting the car, you know)
That said... I had a good time. If you like stage spectacles, need a show that little kids will like (the tykes in the audience were buzzing as the crowd emptied out), or are unreasonably fond of the original film, you should consider checking it out. Otherwise... steer clear.