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On Broadway

'CHITTY Chitty Bang Bang" is turning out to be a dented, four-fendered flop.

Backstage at the Hilton Theater, rumors are swirling that the $14 million children's musical about a flying car will shut down by the end of the year.

In a last-ditch attempt to save the show, the producers have scaled back weeknight performances - which, according to cast members, were virtually audience-free - and added two more performances on the weekend.

Family shows usually sell more tickets on the weekends than during the week.

Although the actors in the show are happy to have jobs (at least for now), many are grumbling about the five-performance weekend schedule, which they say is grueling.

The musical's weekly box-office grosses in September were not impressive.

The show generally took in slightly more than $400,000 a week, not enough to cover the weekly overhead of around $600,000, a person familiar with the show's finances says.

Last week, "Chitty" broke even for the first time in more than a month, and the producers hope that, as the holidays approach, ticket sales will continue to go up.

But the road signs are not good.

Advance ticket sales are not growing, and it's an open secret on the street that Clear Channel, which owns the Hilton, has been hunting for a back-up tenant.

Plus, the competition for the family audience is going to be fierce during the holidays.

Family-friendly shows like "Beauty and the Beast," "Hairspray" and "The Phantom of the Opera" have tickets to sell and have proven to be a lot more popular than "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

"I'm surprised they didn't come out of the September slump stronger," one theater industry executive says of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," a show that most critics thought was a charmless, bloated bore.

The inability of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" to connect with New York audiences raises questions about the possible fate of another big, bloated family musical headed here from London: "Mary Poppins."

Jointly produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Disney, "Mary Poppins" is scheduled to open next season at the New Amsterdam Theater ("The Lion King" is moving to the Minskoff).

It opened to rave reviews in London but quickly became a "soft hit" with good seats available during the week.

Most West End shows, including "Mary Poppins," have suffered at the box office since the attacks on the London subway system.

Still, a genuine hit like "Billy Elliot" is still selling out.

On Broadway, "Mary Poppins," which is a darker tale on stage than it was in the movies, will have the Disney marketing machine behind it, and that's a very potent ticket-selling force.

But "Mary Poppins" is no "Lion King," and many New York theater people who have seen it find it about as emotionally involving as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

And if a car can't fly here, why should it be any easier for a nanny?

MATTHEW Broderick's finally got his lines down in "The Odd Couple."

Now, he just has to create his character.

With a week of previews under his belt, Broderick is back in rehearsals during the day (he's performing at night) trying to hone his Felix Unger in time for critics' performances in two weeks.

The danger - one that director Joe Mantello is said to be battling against - is that the popular and charming actor will fall back on his Leo Bloom schtick rather than develop a fresh characterization.

A backstage source reports Broderick is working hard to bring his performance up to the level of his co-star, Nathan Lane, who was letter - and joke - perfect from day one.

A friend of Lane's says the actor was "cranky" last week because Broderick was not on his game. A lot of Felix and Oscar's back-and-forth bickering was not landing.

The chemistry between the two actors has begun to kick in this week, however, much to the relief of fellow cast members.

A frightening incident occurred at "Sweet Charity" last week. Some crackpot sent a letter threatening Christina Applegate to the theater.

The police were called, and all backstage visits were canceled.

Applegate, always the trouper, performed the show anyway that night, but was spirited out of the Martin Beck after the performance via a secret passageway.

No one from "Sweet Charity" is commenting on the incident, but one person involved in the show says security has been tightened.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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