There was a burst of laughter and Kelly McCormick exclaimed, “I knew you were going to ask me that!” This was in response to my question if the accomplished actress ever gets to play a character with a normal name.
Lucky Arizona Theatre Company audiences first fell in love with McCormick when she played Babe in their hit production of The Pajama Game, and now she’s passing through Tempe in a famous flying car, as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McCormick admits that it took her a little while to get over the immodesty of admitting that she is indeed Truly Scrumptious. She is enjoying the tour of the London and Broadway hit musical, adding that she really enjoys working with the children in the cast.
Someone else that Phoenix audiences will enjoy seeing is Oliver Wadsworth, who has been amazing in so many Actors Theatre of Phoenix productions like The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Angels in America and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Get ready to be afraid, be very afraid of Wadsworth this time, as he is playing the infamous Child Catcher, who terrified a whole generation of kids when the film came out in 1968, and again when the musical opened.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is based on the book by James Bond author Ian Fleming, as well as the film script written by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The songs are by the Sherman Brothers, best known for their work with Disney on such films as Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. The story revolves around eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts, widowed father of two, who creates the titular vehicle, which can fly, float and generally rescue its owner when needed.
McCormick plays Truly Scrumptious, daughter of a candy manufacturer to whom Potts sells his newest invention, Toot Sweets, a musical treat. At first, Truly and Caractacus clash over his parenting skills, but when a bizarre Baron and Baroness plot to steal Chitty, the two work together and of course, fall in love. The most fantastic elements occur when they venture to Vulgaria, the bizarre Barony where children are outlawed and rounded up by the fearsome Child Catcher.
I had the chance to talk with McCormick, who, in addition to her outstanding theatrical talents, has another title altogether: Rabbi’s wife. Her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Blake, tends to his congregation while McCormick is on the road, but she is thankful that this production allows her breaks between engagements to go home and spend time with him. She is also excited to return to the Valley of the Sun.
“I’m thrilled to be coming back,” she exclaimed. “I really enjoyed my time there with ATC, and I have family in Phoenix, so it’s great on a personal and a professional level.”
I kidded her about not having a Jewish-sounding name and she replied, “When I meet people at Temple and they say, ‘McCormick? What kind of Jewish name is that?’ I just tell them ‘It’s Sephardic.’ And hopefully, they get the joke.”
She is grateful for having such a great job in particularly tough economic times, and she loves the response the show has received from people who grew up with the movie and the children they bring. She had nothing but praise for her time at Arizona Theatre Company as well.
“I consider ATC in many ways to be a model regional theater company,” she explained. “They treat their actors like gold. I tell everyone the housing where they put us up, especially in Tucson, is the finest regional theater housing I’ve seen anywhere. And they just make it easy. You feel treasured, you feel supported and you feel like you’re part of a family. I mean, David Ira Goldstein is so good about nurturing people’s creative instincts and making it a collaboration. How can you not have a great finished product when the whole collaborative process along the way has just been a joy?”
I mentioned to McCormick how happy I was that Oliver Wadsworth was in the cast as well, and she responded happily, “Oh, you know Ollie? Oh my gosh, he’s incredibly sweet. And what a fine actor; I mean, he really sets the bar so high for the rest of us. You know, musical theater can tend to get muggy or overdone or all about the ‘cha-cha-cha’, and Ollie has never done a musical before. So to watch the way he comes in and he just stays grounded every single night, but is able every night to find new things and new nuances in the character of the Child Catcher, it’s just remarkable.”
She remarked how interesting it is to see that parents who were affected by the movie’s darker elements are now bringing their own kids to the show to experience the same adventure. “Interestingly, the adults who grew up watching the movie and were terrified of that character still carry that with them, and it’s this whole trip backward to their childhood where that just scared the crap out of them, and here they’re reliving it again,” she laughed. “For the most part, I think the kids can handle it pretty well, but there are some nights where I can hear wailing coming from parts of the audience and I just think, “Oh no, that poor child is just going to be scarred for life. I hope they can get over this.”
McCormick is learning to embrace her character’s tasty name and she admits it’s kind of a pleasure as an actress to step into the iconic high-button shoes. “God bless these authors who create such delightful characters and do a lot of your work for you straight out of the gate,” she said. “When someone hears that your name is Babe or your name is Truly Scrumptious, they know what to expect. All you have to do it deliver!”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opens tonight at the ASU Gammage Auditorium and runs through June 21. For future dates, visit the touring show's official website.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.