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REVIEW: "Mary Poppins" – Musical Theatre Orange County

"...Magical! A roof-raising, toe-tapping, flight of fancy!"

With elaborate sets, eye-popping light displays, animated projections and show-stopping numbers, this Disney-rific production will transport you to the Banks’ household on Cherry Lane in short order, as well as to the rooftops of London, and make you wish the curtain would never come down.

We all know the story immortalized by the 1964 Disney movie – a governess-type Mary Poppins shows up at the privileged London home of little Jane and Michael Banks, where she wows the obstreperous children by introducing them to amazing chimneysweeps, mind boggling shopkeepers, dancing statues, and other unforgettable characters who quickly win the youngsters’ hearts.

Visually stunning, this high-pedigree show, originally produced by Walt Disney Theatrical and Cameron Mackintosh, currently plays at Musical Theatre Orange County’s PYLUSC’s Performing Arts Center through next weekend, and is staged by prominent MTOC resident director, Britany Callahan (“Journey to Christmas,” “Tarzan”) along with wonder-choreographer Daniel Solis (Disneyland Resort Tokyo – “Snow White,” “Aladdin”).

Nobody does magical entertainment like Disney, and every act of beguilement comes with a fortune-cookie life lesson attached. Author P.L. Travers understood this special kind of spell-binding enchantment when she published her first book, “Mary Poppins,” in 1934, focusing on discovering the extraordinary world around us, even when things look their bleakest.

The tale of the mysterious nanny who teaches a troubled family to appreciate the important things in life went on to capture hearts and become one of the most recognized and beloved stories of all time. Thirty years later, Walt Disney released the world-famous blockbuster film in a unique mixture of animation and live action, which has gone on to become a beloved classic.

And, since debuting at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway in 2006 (West End in 2004), “Mary Poppins” has been flying over stages and thrilling audiences with time-honored songs and breathtaking theatrical magic.

In her hands, umbrellas fly, carpet bags hide endless treasures and a day at the park becomes a journey to a new world. But beyond the optical effects or indelible lead characters, the message behind Mary Poppins remains the same: Hope can be a powerful tool in the face of hard times.

As an entertainment machine, the results are undeniably impressive. Much of the time, the music helps flesh out the dilemmas of the Banks family, where impelled, adding emotion and dimension to the stakes at issue. But the vast majority of the numbers are basic pure entertainment, providing an element of operetta-like continuity to the performance, and seamlessly creating dance and production numbers full of gaiety, oomph and buoyancy.

The musical is the story of the Banks family who live in a big Victorian house in London. Things are not going well for the family at the moment – the children, Jane (Ellie Lynch, “Beauty and the Beast”) and Michael (Wyatt Goodbrand, ”Wizard of Oz”), are out of control and are routinely driving successive nannies from the house. Their lives are dull and quite boring as their parents hardly have time for them. But they finally meet their match when their advertisement for a new nanny brings the magical Mary Poppins (Catherine Dickens) to their house on Cherry Tree lane.

And when that mysterious young governess glides into their lives, all starch and no nonsense, the family finds that she’s the answer to their prayers, but in the most peculiar way. Mary Poppins takes the children on many magical and memorable adventures, along with her chimneysweep friend, Bert (Colson Barkley), and find that “anything can happen if you let it.”

There is an extraordinary amount of expertise visible onstage, strikingly marshaled by Director Callahan and Choreographer Solis, along with former Disney production manager Mitch Atkins, MTOC’s Artistic Director and Technical Producer. Using unseen forces from the tech reserves of the entertainment mega-giant, Director Atkins added special touches of animation and technical wizardry, propelling this production into the highest theatrical offering. Brian Sandahl’s breathtaking scenic design and elaborate sets deserve an “amazing” award, almost coming alive in a surreal, fantasy-rich scrim of bold colors. Bright and intensely engaging costumes as well as striking pastels by Evelyn Perez looks very much like the original Broadway design.

Catherine Dickens, who plays the title role, is not just “practically perfect in every way” but IS perfect in every way. Ms. Dickens is whimsically delightful, prim, proper and confidently poised, never once faltering from curtain up to curtain down. She nails the essence of the character as someone who is strict but also has a heart of gold. But one of the best things about Catherine Dickens is her phenomenal voice, one that invites you into Mary’s world, no questions asked.

Soaring through the theatre in spectacular wonderment, she sings even better than she acts. If ever a stage actress was perfectly cast as the ultimate au pair for this part, it’s Ms. Dickens. She plays Mary with a bit less bite than others. But that makes for a better contrast in this show where some of the darker elements hit closer to home, leaving Mary and her can-do attitude as the only antidote.

Mr. Barkley's Bert, the wonderful chimneysweep who’s essentially the musical’s narrator/ringmaster, complements the dazzling Mary Poppins expertly as an accomplice in her mission to win over and enlighten her wards with song, light-on-his-feet dance moves (particularly in that acrobatic novelty number) and clever dialogue. In fact Bert delivers one of the most spot-on lines in the play when he tells Mary, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” Those stunning turn-of-the-20th century Edwardian walking suits and high-button shoes do seem to have been designed with Ms. Dickens in mind.

Mr. Barkley is a Wheaton College Conservatory of Music alumni, and seems to also have perfect pitch. He’s not as goofy as Van Dyke in the film, but he definitely has a better Cockney accent. His character seems to be a bit deeper, a little more nuanced, too, which helps him fit in a bit better with the Banks family when he finally chooses to coalesce. Mr. Barkley easily thrilled the audience with his naturally convivial voice, great diction, and terrific stage presence.

Old fans of the film will recognize some of the unforgettable tunes in the musical version, like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” “Step In Time,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” With Music and Lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman, Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and Book by Julian Fellowes, the musical’s adaptation by Fellowes has a few variations.

In the musical, Winifred Banks (Haylie Beckman - “Being Mrs. Banks reprise”) is no longer a suffragette as she was in the movie. She’s now a former actress and neglected spouse looking for a bit of love and respect herself.

Formerly seen as a bit ditsy, she’s portrayed in the stage version more as a down-to-earth wife and mother, who’s perhaps been spread too thin. But, in a pinch, she’ll stand right up and defend her husband George, even before his dreaded boss.

George, however, is still in trouble after a visit to the bank by Mary and the kids. But now it’s because, after hearing one of Mary’s pearls of wisdom, he turns down a rich German client for a loan and gives one to a small factory operator so he can keep his men employed, infuriating the boss who promptly suspends him.

Gil Garcia IV (“Aladdin,” “Sister Act”), who plays the suitably stern George Banks, is perfect as the grouchy father whose rough childhood leads him to becoming a strict father. Mr. Garcia’s character is featured in many numbers, but George has two prominent solos that stood out in the show – “A Man Has Dreams” and “Good for Nothing.”

Kudos as well for Laura Erath as the cook-housekeeper Mrs. Brill. She reminds one of the wonderfully sassy Mrs. Bridges in PBS’s long ago classic “Upstairs/Downstairs”—

Winnifred: "And you're quite sure you know how to ice it?"

Mrs. Brill: "Quite sure. And in case you're worried, I have not yet been exchanged by the fairies for a total nincompoop!"

As for the splendid dance choreography, there are way too many to mention all. The “Jolly Holiday” number in the park in which the statues come to life, and the “Step in Time” tap dance routine for the chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London, are two of the very best. The enchantress battle, “Brimstone and Treacle” featuring Kayla Agnew as Miss Andrew, Mary Poppins’ grim, frightening replacement, was memorable and extremely exciting – a real crowd pleaser!

As houseboy to the Banks family, Zachary Smart plays the clumsy, grumbling Robertson Ay who never quite gets things right. Although he doesn't do a lot of singing, he has a very funny pratfall featured in the "Spoonful" number which has made the character a national celebrity of sorts. Mr. Smart also joins Mary, Jane, Michael and Winifred in the song in a featured solo.

Colson Barkley is also the Music Director, Nick Van Houten is Lighting Designer, Matt Jauriqui oversees Sound Design and Colby Nordberg handled Projection Design. Assisting Ms. Perez is Melani Davert as Head Costumer and Edith Levin as Assistant Costumer. Christine Peterson is Production Stage Manager; Pichteeda Taing and Nina Gioiosa are Assistant Stage Managers. Assisting Mr. Solis is Danielle Schaefer as Assistant Choreographer; Morgan O’Keefe is Production Assistant and Lori Atkins is Executive Producer.

In addition, Cassie Wise is Mrs. Corry, and Ron Banks is double-roled as the Park Keeper and Bank Chairman. Aaron Al-Imam is Von Hussler, the amusing Cameron Keaggy is Northbrook as well as Admiral Boom, and Lucinda Tucker portrays the colorfully characterized Miss Lark. Becca Wood is Katie Nana, Johnny Ramos plays the Policeman, and Tahlia Pompel is Annie. Raven Hale is Fannie and Laura Evans plays Miss Smythe.

The company also boasts an especially strong and well-drilled ensemble, with plenty of real dancing and stentorian choral work. Dancing honors are undoubted taken by Kenny Giles as Neleus, the stone statue in the park that comes to life. And Jessica Ordaz has an emotionally charged moment with the Bird Woman’s “Feed the Birds.”

Ensemble members consist of Kayla Agnew, Laura Evans, Cash Atkins, Joseph Coats, Madison Farrell, Raven Hale, Adel Isen, Kasey Jacques, Sarah Nadel, Tahlia Pompel, Autumn Shade, Cassie Wise, Becca Wood and Josiah Yang. Dancers are Maisie Adams, Aaron Al-Imam, Audrey Almeida, Cheyenne Brown, Laura Davert, Kenny Giles, Cameron Keaggy, Orr Kestenboim, Elena Levin, Jessica Ordaz, Johnny Ramos and Fionna Tucker. Junior Dancers are Sammy Dorfman, Isabella Lazzarinetti, Victoria Lavoie, Rae Martinez and Ava Villacorta.

Disney and Cameron MacKintosh’s “Mary Poppins” is considered that rarest of the rare treat: “a show the whole family will love!” You’ll sing to the dance numbers, you’ll delight in the colors, the energy, you’ll be astounded at the high performance level, not to mention the eye-catching theatrical effects.

The show is here only for one more weekend, closing this Sunday, August 4th. This is currently one of the hottest family tickets in OC, so you might want to check with the box office soon. You can order your tickets at: PYLUSD Performing Arts Center is located at 1651 Valencia Ave in Placentia. Come prepared to be impressed…This show is highly recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report

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