"Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang" to play at San Ramon's
Dougherty Performing Arts Center
By Lou Fancher
Someone has grown too big for their britches -- and it's good news.
The "someone" is the Bay Area Children's Theatre company, founded by Artistic Director Nina Meehan in 2004 to bring professional live theater to Bay Area children and their families. The shows performed by adult actors in San Francisco and Berkeley fueled the growth of a robust theater education program for youth. Eight years ago, the classes, workshops and performances aimed at marrying kids' imaginative mindsets with the world of classic and contemporary literature expanded to establish a presence in San Ramon. The 90-seat Front Row Theater offered an intimate venue for the company's productions and popular once-a-week classes turned into 10 weekly offerings and youth performances. But after a second education program opened in Pleasanton, BACT's productions in the Tri-Valley began selling out, leaving many patrons out of luck or faced with driving to Berkeley to enjoy the shows.
That's why this year's production of "Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang, TYA" (Theatre for Young Audiences version) is cause for celebration. The stage version of the book, movie and Broadway show about the adventures of the Potts family and their flying car runs Dec. 19-20 at the much-larger Dougherty Performing Arts Center.
"We were doing two weekends with three shows every day. That limited us to about 1,100 total seats," says Meehan. "This year we're finally in the bigger theater, and we'll see about 2,000 people over just four performances. It's the same show as in Berkeley or San Francisco, just without the commute."
In addition to "Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang," "Bad Kitty on Stage" and "Elephant and Piggie" will be performed at the larger theater. Due to scheduling conflicts and the fact that it's a lesser-known title, Meehan says that "Rickshaw Girl" will be performed at the Front Row. Pleased that BACT "East" has been a hit, Meehan repeatedly returns in conversation to the community and how the company has been received.
"The Tri-Valley is incredibly supportive of the arts. And it's the city governments as much as the general public," she says. "They want arts for their kids, which is exciting and refreshing. All the entities and the performance venues contribute to the 'if-you-build-it-they-will-come' energy."
Meehan isn't just riffing on Kevin Costner's well-known line from "Field of Dreams" or spinning a fan base out of thin air. She asserts that live theater holds a special attraction--even during an era when 21st century technology does amazing things and in a part of the Bay Area where sports, academics and other enrichment opportunities compete for kids' attention. "We're in a culture where there are other things offered, but they tend to be singular experiences," Meehan says. "You're alone watching YouTube. You're alone on your mobile device. Live theater is five kids and eight adults getting together, being engaged in a show, then leaving with something to talk about. The Tri-Valley has embraced live theater as part of a unique experience."
For most theater groups, capturing or cultivating a large, loyal audience requires striking a balance between presenting well-loved current works, classics and new works that take a risk by exploring less-traveled topics or presenting new voices in a genre. "Balance is critical," Meehan says, "but basically, engaging stories are always paramount."
"Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang" is a timeless, multigenerational story with a happy ending and thus, meets Meehan's formula for a perfect holiday season production. The musical centers around an eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, who relies on the help of his children and a candy magnate's daughter, Truly Scrumptious, to save a former Grand Prix-winning race car from the scrap heap. The car has magical properties, the evil Baron Bomburst wants the car all to himself, and Grandpa Potts must be rescued if a happily-ever-after ending is to occur. Although the plot and several of the "stick in your head" songs are familiar to many people, Meehan says there are still surprises.
Director Karen Altree Piemme has taken an adventurous approach and allows children to "fill in" the windows intentionally left open to their imaginations. "It's puppetry, it's movement, and the car is a character. It's made of four different pieces that the actors manipulate," says Meehan.
Set in a nonspecific-time universe with an evil child snatcher whose comic shading Meehan says will make him "not too scary" for the youngest audience members, the story remains vivid for older audiences.
"It's still a play about kids taking ownership and working with adults to figure out a world that's scary," Meehan says. "It's a multigenerational story for families to experience together."