Wits’ End Theatre begins preparations, rehearsals for Western Days production

The cast of Wits' End Theatre's production of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" rehearses a scene from the play in advance of the Western Days celebration in early August. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
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That’s $ome car

“The most expensive prop in a show on Broadway is the car at $750,000,” stated Tom Barnes, director of this year’s Wits’ End Theatre (WET) production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The production is set to take the stage during the first two weekends of August as part of Chatfield’s Western Days celebration.

The featured prop of WET’s delightful, family-oriented 2018 show is the car…the flying jalopy that “chitty-chitty-bang-bangs” its way across the sky with a load of fascinated youngsters in its seats.

“While our car doesn’t reach that amount, it is the most expensive prop WET has ever built. That is all I’m saying...you have to come and see the show for the other special effects,” Barnes said.

Co-producer Stephanie Copeman agreed, “This is probably one of the most prop-heavy shows we have done in a while, so that will be exciting for everyone to see.”

The flying car may be the star of the prop collection, but the cast is comprised of a long list of talented individuals who will bring the play’s characters to life.

“It’s just local community people, some with years of experience and others experiencing their first show,” Copeman said. “There are 36 cast members. There are several mother-son and mother-daughter combinations, and four sisters from one family. The youngest cast member is nine years old, and it is a tie for the oldest between the director and another actor at 61.”

Co-producer Rachel Schieffelbein elaborated, “We have a huge, wonderful cast this year. There’s a large child ensemble, kids, aged nine and up, and they’ve been a lot of fun to have around. We have quite a few sibling groups in the show. The four Blankenship sisters from Spring Valley are joining us this year, with Xena playing Truly. There are at least four more sibling groups on stage, plus a few parents acting with their kids. We love seeing whole families getting involved!”

Being in a WET production is quite a commitment, as rehearsals are held Sunday through Thursday to get the scenes down just right, but Barnes remarked that there are rewards in the work.

“We have just finished blocking the entire play and rehearsed all the songs and will soon start running scenes without stopping,” he said. “For the director, it is starting with just an idea and a script and knowing that there will be a show that everyone will enjoy at the end. For me, it is the journey rather than just the end…just the good nature that everyone has and the fun times during rehearsal — jokes, comical acting.”

Copeman observed that while there have been no major challenges to this show’s presentation, there still are some challenges to putting together the pieces that make it an enjoyable venture. “It’s all the moving pieces that Rachel and I have to make sure are going smoothly,” she said. “We kind of have it down to an art now, with ‘Chitty’ being the third show we have produced.”

Schieffelbein registered, “Our directors are at Potter Auditorium five nights a week with various cast members working on music and different scenes. Right now, everyone is learning the music, and we’re blocking the show. We’re just starting to see how it’s all going to come together. This is Tom Barnes’ first time directing for Wits’ End, although he’s no stranger to our stage, having acted and worked crew in previous shows. He’s such a creative spirit, and it’s going to be an incredibly fun show!”

Costumes are the realm of one of Chatfield’s clergy who has been part of the crew of WET’s production of “The Little Mermaid.”

Barnes related, “Local Methodist pastor Debra Collum is doing costumes. She has done several other WET shows and has a great design sense and is able to reuse or remake existing WET costumes.”

The set is being constructed by some veteran WET set and prop geniuses, Barnes noted, adding that he has a hand in the design of the flying car. “Hugh and Nick Manahan, of Manahan Machine Shop, are in charge of construction of set and some prop pieces and do a great job, having worked on many other WET productions. The show is heavy on props, with the car being the biggest and most complex, which is being built by the director.”

Schieffelbein concurred that the set will be something to see. “Tom Barnes, our director, is also designing the sets, and the Manahan family is making them a reality. I love going to practice on Sundays and seeing everything they’ve accomplished over the weekend. It’s like magic.”

Schieffelbein commented that the show is a nostalgic ride that people won’t want to miss. “A lot of people who are parents now grew up watching ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’” she said. “We’re excited to bring this show to the next generation, and we hope parents are excited to share this old favorite with their kids.”

Barnes promised, “This is a very family-friendly show with many of the tunes you will have heard and will be humming on the way out of the theater. It is great fun to be in and to watch.”

Additionally, Schieffelbein pointed out that WET will definitely have a float in the Western Days grand parade and also host special events before the production is brought to the stage on opening night.

“We’ll be hosting a kid party on July 21 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Legion Room at the Chatfield Center for the Arts. Kids will get a chance to meet some of the characters and hear Truly sing a song from the show. There will be activities and treats as well. This is a free event, and we hope lots of families can join us!”