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REVIEW: "Mary Poppins" — Arts and Learning Conservatory, Costa Mesa

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Life’s a Jolly Holiday with ALCs “Mary Poppins!”

At the Arts and Learning Conservatory in Costa Mesa this month, the 2019-20 season was flying higher than ever with ALC’s latest production, “Mary Poppins,” a musical about a magical nanny who brings harmonious order to a disorderly household where both parents and children must be meliorated. Running at the Rock in Anaheim for only two days, November 14th through the 16th, the school’s distinguished arts program is now celebrating their 15th year of influential growth in Orange County with over a thousand students annually, concentrating in theater and music.

Based on the delightful stories of P.L. Travers, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, “Mary Poppins” was nominated for nine Olivier awards in London and seven Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical. Original music and lyrics are by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. The book is by Julian Fellows with new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

It can be very difficult to do justice to an iconic character like Mary Poppins, but the family-friendly ALC production was an eye-popping musical delight and entranced the hearts and imagination of both young and old. The cast featured Sophia Ruiz headlining the show in the role of the indefatigable Mary Poppins, prim, poised and radiant, who brings to the part the necessary combination of steely charm, inarguable logic and airy mystery.

Then there’s Marcus Brooks as the nimble, happy-go-lucky Bert, who acts as narrator, introducing scenes with short, somber snippets of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” long before the actual song appears. If you still recall the inexorable Cockney accent of Dick Van Dyke as Bert — in this case, Bert treads lightly, with an accent tinged only slightly with an East End British dialect. He is lithe and winning, providing expert and expressive vocal shadings, and has a nice, almost squeaky-clean chemistry with Mary Poppins, although a hint of a heart-throb between the two is quite detected.

Canon Clevenger plays George Banks, forthright Sophia DeMarzo was Winifred Banks and the enormously talented young actors Anna Craig and Ava Grace Recana who starred as the sometimes petulant, sometimes misbehaving Banks children. Directed and choreographed by Jenny Moon Shaw, the production also boasted a strong and well-drilled ensemble, comprised of cast members who are all students enrolled in various community arts programs within ten school districts.

Ms. Ruiz was the total embodiment of Mary Poppins and fit the role well with her flawless delivery. Her depiction was sweet, yet firm…fun, but businesslike, when it's time to be. She was a bundle of energy with an extraordinary vocal range, a spring in her straight-backed step and a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

As Mary’s omnipresent chimney sweep pal (played by the rakishly charming Mr. Brooks, and blessed with a permanent grand sourire), Bert introduces the audience right away to 17 Cherry Tree Lane where we find the family saying goodbye to Katie Nanna (Lillian Owler), the latest in one of six nannies to have abruptly left their posts in the last four months.

There are two other family servants in the household — one is their cook, Mrs. Brill (Aubrie Ofner), and the other their quirky odd-job man, Robertson Ay (Dylan Panetta), who both provide plenty of scene-stealing comic relief throughout the show.

As the scene opens, Jane and Michael have the inspirational idea to write their own advertisement for a new governess, and almost as soon as the torn-up pieces of their efforts are swooshed out of the chimney, there she is: Mary Poppins...exuding authority in a prim, proper hat, sensible shoes, umbrella intact with a crisp smile - the perfect nanny. Having every confidence in her own merits, she accepts (or I should say, assumes) the position. And as we soon find out, with Mary Poppins in charge, you can expect fun and games, medicine that tastes like strawberry ice, messes that clean themselves up with no dillydally, and that fabulous, bottomless carpet bag that holds all of Mary's worldly belongings.

Out of that same bag comes a measuring tape which identifies Ms. Craig’s prissy Jane as one who is "rather inclined to giggle and doesn't put things away,” exactly the balance needed for Ms. Recana’s high-jinks as Michael, who was found to be "extremely stubborn and suspicious." In goal-finding contrast, Mary's own measurement read, "Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way," prompting the popular song, “Practically Perfect.” But though her focus is orchestrated to be just on the children, Mary’s real task is fostering a closer relationship between them and their parents.

The production is bursting with typical Disney magic and fun. One of the most magical moments is when Mary, Bert and the kids enter the world of Bert's painting, when the stage transforms from drab to dazzling into a brilliant adventure in the park. Jo-Kai Dawson leads the park action with the kids as Neleus, a marble marvel statue that mystically comes to life and dances with them in the big ensemble number, “Jolly Holiday.”

As for the children’s parents, Mr. Clevenger’s exaggerated, stuffy Mr. Banks is portrayed as an emotionally distant banker who prioritizes precision and order, as he remarks in a song called, you guessed it, “Precision and Order.” Now he’s even more obsessed with work than usual, because in an uncharacteristic glimmer of humanity, he approved a risky loan for Mr. Northbrook, an idealistic, middle-class, honest but low-on-collateral factory owner from the North of England (Eva Lupis, who is also the Park Keeper) instead of a lucrative but shamelessly exploitative speculator (an unscrupulous Von Hussler, played by Maggie Breslin). But the long-suffering Mrs. Banks is so accustomed to alienation that she’s ceased to expect anything different. Mary Poppins, however, has a way of turning around bad luck and bringing back the important familial aspects of daily life.

The show's big production standout numbers were spectacular with rich lighting, clever costumes and amazing choreography, particularly in "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which starts in a magical sweet shop in the park. Led by Mary and Bert, as well as a dizzy Caribbean shop owner (Janna Feliciano), the performers are almost drunk with glee, showcasing mind-boggling precision-perfect movements and filling the stage with a kind of joyous explosion.

Some of the most anticipated highlights of the show include the prodigiously timed tap number, "Step in Time," featuring Bert and a stage full of chimney sweeps. But the biggest treat in the show is without a doubt “A Spoonful of Sugar,” a number that helped make “Mary Poppins” one of the biggest successes Walt Disney Studios has ever experienced, and arguably one of the most popular soundtracks ever created. Another notable featured performance was by Avery Baum, playing the Bird Woman covered in a patchwork of old shawls, with pockets stuffed with bags of crumbs for the birds. Ms. Baum gives a very touching account of the lovely ballad “Feed the Birds,” capturing plenty of misty eyes in the auditorium.

However, the Banks boys — George and Michael are the rather unsung glue that holds the whole enterprise together. Without their journey, a maturation of self-discovery that leads to the dawning of true family connection, there would be little heart to this theatrical production.

Mr. Clevenger’s George does make it his own. He is precise and imaginative in his early supercilious disengagement, and touchingly flabbergasted when he finds himself cutting loose. His face and body virtually explode with the pleasure of feeling naughty and free, helped along immeasurably by the plot leading his character to the edge of destitution with greater seriousness and dread than does either the film or the book — but it is the touching believability of Ms. Recana’s young Michael which allows that emotional resonance to fully flower in his longing for his father’s attention and love. In Michael’s world, he knows with all his heart that if his father would just teach him to fly a kite, then everything will be all right.

When Mary Poppins leaves for a while at the end of the first act to teach the children a lesson, their mother Winifred hires Miss Andrew (Gabriela Coo), George’s childhood nanny, as a replacement. However, the suitably forceful Miss Andrew turns out to be a tyrannical holy terror who loves nothing more than force-feeding children her gruesome, medicinal tonic, said to contain "Brimstone, Treacle, Cod liver Oil and Carbolic Soap." The fantastic bit of nastiness called “Brimstone and Treacle,” a dueling duet sung by Miss Andrew and our heroine, Mary, presents the perfect nanny antithesis to the effervescent Mary Poppins - definitely a most favorite audience scene!

Bill Billetter gives us inventive scenic design with rightful looks to old London housetops and dwellings, and Diane Rankine offers gorgeous costumes that are all about transformation. Never mind that Ms. Ruiz doesn’t break a sweat singing and dancing her way through thirteen numbers, mostly in that coat—and doesn’t even break a nail fastening and unfastening what seems like scores of costume buttons.

The show includes top-notch technical values, with some nifty theatrical wizardry. Gilbert Ruiz III handled audio/visual and Nazaire LeBlanc was projection designer. Sandy Shaw was stage manager; Brenna Williams was in charge of props, and Kelly Higgans was production assistant. The orchestra director was Charlie Miller, the producer/CEO was Debora Wondercheck, and Katie Pitts was musical director. Director Jenny Moon Shaw gives the show a smoothly polished staging, along with assistant director Laura Ross, that included lively and highly entertaining choreography in big numbers such as “Step in Time” and “Chim, Chim, Cher-ee.”

Additional cast included Noah Brock, who does a wonderfully comic turn as Admiral Boom as well as the long-faced Chairman of the Bank. Claire Harmsen was the Policeman, Tayler Peterson was Miss Lark, Haley Dang was Fannie, Maddie Feliciano was Miss Smythe and Ava Melgoza was Valentine. Other Ensemble included Sara Read, Haley Schultz, Bryn Mason, Tess Walshe, Alyssa Leblanc, Cayla Campbell, Shayla Knihtila, Claire Smith, Simone Ponsford, Lauren Hancock, Avery Johnson, Roxanne Bonette, Sophia Brooks, Joshua Brown, Elizabeth Felten, Malia Gregson, Emma Hoyt, Kumaka Jensen, Anna Paquette, Iyla Soumbasakis and Malaina Wilmer.

Having been one of the most popular Disney movies of all time, enchanting audiences over decades, the Arts and Learning Conservatory has spared no effort or talent to bring this Disney classic to the stage at the Rock. In fact, the musical was a feast for the eyes and ears, an endearing mixture of irresistible story, unforgettable songs, breathtaking dance numbers, and astonishing deftness. Mary Poppins and her charmed umbrella will definitely leave you with a spring in your step leaving the auditorium. On the whole — a lovely afternoon of theatre.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report



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