“First of all, I would like to make one thing clear…I never explain anything.”
The 2006 stage musical version of “Mary Poppins,” which features Australian author P. L. Travers' iconic literary character, is currently in its run at Rose Center Theater, Westminster, through March 8th, offering a magical confection of this quintessential English nanny who improves the dynamics of one very dysfunctional family.
The original stage production, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Walt Disney Theatrical, ran on Broadway for over six years and used state of the art stage effects to fix wrecked kitchens, enable Mary Poppins to fly, and allow her partner in magic, Bert, to literally walk up the side of the proscenium arch. The show received seven Tony Award nominations in all, including Best Musical, winning one for Best Scenic Design.
Rose Center Managing Director, Tim Nelson, who both directs and musically directs the show, crafts a bubbly and heartwarming enactment, while drawing on the original stories in Pamela Travers’ 1933 book, employing the music and lyrics from the 1964 Disney movie by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and is a fusion of various elements from the two. Additional songs, music and lyrics are also included from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Tawni Bridenball, last seen in “Cinderella,” strongly exhibits Mary's strict and stern demeanor, but allows Mary's well-meaning ways to come through, especially in Ms. Bridenball’s exceptional voice, producing a rich, powerful delivery and perfect diction, infused with warm, buttery tones. Purposefully, the unflappable Mary Poppins descends from the sky (by way of projection), traveling by umbrella, to tend to the Banks children, Jane (Lauren Gravitt alternating with Adrienne Morrow) and Michael (Taven Blanke), whose wretched behavior has caused a stream of previous nannies to give notice.
Mary presupposes her way through an interview and takes charge of the two rascals in quick dispatch. Her crisp, highly structured manner is a cover for the magic and imagination that wins the children over in no time. “Pish-Posh!”
But though youngsters Jane and Michael, brimming with mischief, are ostensibly her charges, it is the dyspeptic patriarch George Banks, a rigid, troubled bank officer, whose fortunes are the most altered by Poppins' influence. George's devotion to his work has left no time for family, including his wife, Winnifred, a soulfully neglected mother and spouse.
Tim Nelson's cast is as "practically perfect" as Mary Poppins herself. Chris Caputo is a splendidly starchy George Banks, with a touching portrayal of George's change from a stubborn, selfish man to one who understands the importance of family. He dutifully maintains his stern façade, but always with the faintest hint of struggle against a more tender nature.
Melissa Cook is beyond words as Winnifred, a former actress frustrated by domesticity, displaying a powerful strength and grace underneath a self-reliant woman, who is simply striving to meet her husband’s expectations. Her singing? Melodious, resonant…spell-binding, with numerous duets and solos, but one that redefines vocal dynamics: “Being Mrs. Banks.”
Song and dance man Seth Merrill is Bert, Mary's ideal, jack of all trades co-star, and they carry many of the score's most beloved numbers ("A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," etc.) with verve and vigor. Mr. Merrill tackles the demanding featured spot in the "Step in Time" chimney sweep spectacle with that same sort of raffish insouciance that made both film Berts, Dick Van Dyke, and the great Gene Kelly legendary.
Mr. Merrill alternates with Trevin Stephenson in the role, both exuding sensitivity and joy, with the character taking delight in each turn his life takes (a chalk artist one day, chimney sweep the next), singing with gusto, and dancing up a storm.
There are numerous supporting parts, some played with conviction, some with a wink. In particular, Susann Cellier is a commanding delight as the back-talking housekeeper Mrs. Brill, depicting great comic relish. And Billy Reed serves up whimsy and slapstick with ease as clumsy servant Robertson Ay. Christopher Vournas shines as the dancing statue come to life, Neleus (who was son of Poseidon and one of the Argonauts). And in the small but poignant role of the Bird Woman, Kristin Henry sings the moving, "Feed the Birds," with enough depth and faded glory to touch every heart in the audience.
There's also a funny, outlandish turn by Meredith Woodson as Miss Andrew, a villainous ex-nanny from Mr. Banks childhood, nicknamed "The Holy Terror," who makes a most unwelcome return to the household. Miss Andrew is the polar opposite of Mary Poppins, advocating the force-feeding of "brimstone and treacle" instead of "a spoonful of sugar" to the children. In the well-choreographed duel, Mary Poppins makes short work of her, and finally rids Mr. Banks of his life-long dread and collywobbles.
And Lauren Belt playing Mrs. Corry, a mystical candy store owner, described as the oldest woman in the world, boisterously takes the lead on the indelible, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (along with her outlandishly costumed chatterbox cohorts), who letter hand-signals the high energy song in perfect unison. With refrain.
All the aforementioned big dance numbers—the adventurous "Jolly Holiday," the nearly frenetic "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," and the sweeping "Step in Time"—are splendidly choreographed, creating beautifully staged pictures and generating waves of happy energy to the rooftops. And while, unlike the movie, there are no dancing penguins, rest assured that dance and song are used to ignite magic among the characters. One such chorally robust number, "Let's Go Fly a Kite," lifts spirits along with kites. The show winds up with a lilting new anthem, "Anything Can Happen," to help establish settings and context.
Director Nelson oversees a production that seems to move effortlessly, although the care and detail is evident. Chris Caputo’s scenic design shifts from one view to the next as full interior living spaces periodically appear, exterior backdrops rise and fall, stairs and units glide into place, and rooftops of London in 1910 make recurring appearances.
The costumes, by Jenny Wentworth, are spectacular, as if an exhibition of Edwardian garb had been swiped from the British Museum, then dyed with bright colors to enhance the presence of magic. Mr. Caputo’s lighting design (with assist by Tommy Hinchee) succinctly echoes the moods of the characters, and the sound quality and effects, although with a few mic difficulties, ensured a crisp experience and was well executed. Props are by Trish Merrill, wigs are designed by Cliff Senior, and the production stage manager is Robbynn Green (also ensemble).
In addition, the cast includes David Hubbard (Admiral Boom), Tom Orr (Bank Chairman), Teresa Orr (Katie Nanna), Kristin Yata (Miss Smythe), D. Alexander Ramirez (Herr Von Hussler), Randy Calcetas (Mr. Northbrook/Policeman), Cherie Aniceto (Miss Lark) and Brandon Lisama (Park Keeper).
Ensemble is Cheyenne Brown, Tatiana Brown, Melissa Fox, Lisa Fraser, Holly Griffin, Chloe Hubbard, Shea Julie, Paige Kim, Candice Lei, Olivia Leyva, Alyssa Manzanares, Jillian Matthews, Kylie Matthews, Caitlyn McCann, Gina Mendes, Luis Negron, Darien Rorick, Karin Williams and Kristen Williams. Children’s ensemble includes Paige Bridenball, Abby Elliott, Collin Higgins, Solana Laszlo, Antonio Lopez, Zariah Merrill, Daphne Moyes, Alexis Park, Tayler Peterson, Kaia Podd, and Aly West.
Ms. Bridenball's Mary lives up to all expectations as she facilely sings and dances with Mr. Merrill’s Bert, the itinerant street artist and chimney sweep, and guides Jane and Michael through a world where statues come to life, people can buy conversation in a candy store, and an army of chimney sweeps form a precision dance team (one of the most exciting parts of Jennifer Simpson-Matthews’ and Diane Makas’ choreography).
But Mary Poppins is really about opening Mr. Banks' eyes and heart, recognizing that by defining success in terms of position and salary, he is missing out on the greatest treasure of all — his children. Mary Poppins is the catalyst that not only changes Mr. Banks, but allows Mrs. Banks to bloom, finding her inner strength, and taking her place as a true partner to her husband.
Magically, it all ends up going down, as the song puts it, in a most delightful way — all done with a light touch and a lot of class. And when Mary Poppins flies off into the sunset, you can't help but feel a little uplifted too.
Disney & Cameron Mackintosh's “Mary Poppins” continues at Rose Center Theater’s RCT Musical Theater Productions through March 8th, with performances Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. VIP night, Friday, February 28th; group rates available. For ticket information and reservations please see https://www.rosecentertheater.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report