Monday, May 4, 2015

A Review of Mary Poppins

Photo by Len Struttmann
by Sharon Falduto 

Cedar Rapids - Mary Poppins at Theatre Cedar Rapids is lively, energetic, and colorful fun.

The musical combines elements of the beloved 1960s Disney movie and several plotlines from P.L. Travers’ series of books about the uncanny nanny Mary Poppins, making for a unique musical experience that adds more dimension to the story.

The songs in this musical are both familiar and different. You will hear “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Jolly Holiday,” but the verses are different than those on that old Julie Andrews soundtrack recording. Much of the music is the original Sherman brothers, with additional songs, music, and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, whose credits include Peter Pan and Honk.

Jill Fitzgerald as Mary Poppins is just the right amount of the taciturn to keep her Mary Poppins from being an overly soft nanny. “Spit spot, Jane and Michael, best foot forward!” She was able to give the air of being a practical woman while magical things just seemed to happen all around her. She bristled when necessary and softened when needed, and her lovely singing voice was just the thing to both inspire and frighten children. Her voice was put to particularly good use when matched against Nadine Borngraeber’s operatic voice in a singing nanny-off. Borngraeber was the brimstone to Fitzgerald’s treacle and the vocal sparring was superb.

Jay Burkens’ Bert was a lively bloke, at home in all of his various trades (“when I was young, they said to learn a trade-so I learned ‘em all!”) He serves as the bridge between Mary Poppins’ world of magic and the Banks family’s more workaday world, introducing the children to the sense of wonder that they lack at home due to their parents’ distraction. Burkens’ Bert thick cockney accent is very agreeable to the ear, although my companion, seven year old Piper Falduto, did tell me that at times she had trouble understanding people. Not everyone has the best listening ears for accents.

Photo by Len Struttmann
Danny Mulka’s henpecked Robertson Ay brought laughs in every scene with his pratfalls and broad reactions. He paired with Tamsin AcAtee as Mrs. Brill, who was brilliant as a loudmouth beleaguered housekeeper. Their best scene takes place in the kitchen, with falling plates and an overturned bowl of flour. Using an actual bowl of flour may have been a mistake, as the flour remained on the floor for the rest of the act after the kitchen mishap.

Although Mary Poppins is the title character, George Banks is the hero of the play. It is his character who follows the arc of the hero’s journey, down into the depths of despair and back again to discover what is really important. Phil Hershner excelled in the role of George; stern, straightforward, and with a military bearing at the beginning of the show, descending into chaos in the middle and running about the stage like a madman, and in the end becoming the man his wife always truly knew him to be. As a fun fact, the actor who plays the banker Mr. Banks is, for his day job, a banker.

The character of Mrs. Banks in this production is the most troubling to me. Anne Ohrt did a great job with the role; wistful and sad when singing about how she’s not quite sure how to be herself in the song “Being Mrs. Banks.” I could tell that she loved her children, and her husband, but wasn’t quite sure how to show this love. Unfortunately, the book of the musical seems to describe Mrs. Banks only in the role of wife, and to a lesser extent, mother. The entire subplot about her marching for women’s suffrage is missing, and I dearly missed it.

The children actors were both extremely talented. Carlee Rose Netolicky’s Jane Banks was suspicious of the world, clearly her father’s daughter, trying to make the world into something that makes sense. Ian Wolverton-Weiss as Michael Banks had more of a sense of childish wonder than his sister, and was more willing than she to join the dancers in the fantastical scenes—although Jane, of course, always came along.

Amy Farley’s bird woman provided one of the heartbreaking moments of the show, with her lovely ballad of “Feed the Birds.” The song provides a window into Michael’s softheartedness, and later his father’s. Unfortunately it’s a song that tends to make little audiences restless, a true shame as it is such a lovely song.

Photo by Len Struttmann
Leslie Charipar’s directing kept the show moving and energetic. Her deft hand at directing was especially featured in two of the more fantastical sequences. In an early scene in the park, statues gradually come to life, shifting position just out of the children’s eyesight before finally fully coming alive. In another scene, in Mrs. Cory’s Conversation Store, a colorfully clad ensemble provided the fun house mirror image of the white-coated statues. Each ensemble actor was impeccable, and I couldn’t decide on whom to keep my eyes, whether they were statues, crazily costumed folk in the manner of people at the Mad Hatter’s costume party, or chimney sweeps in a fantastic presentation of “Step in Time.” This production boasts a list of over 20 costumers, and the costumes were impeccable. Mary Poppins’ included the familiar black derby with white flowers; the chimney sweeps were in dowdy browns and plaids, and the children had the most wonderful early 20th century British children’s outfits.

The flying effects were a great deal of fun; Mary Poppins diagonally rose across the stage, riding the crosswind by her umbrella, and later landed on stage by way of a kite. Some suspension of disbelief is needed—after all, the ropes weren’t invisible—but suspension of disbelief is half the fun of theatre. My favorite effect by far was when Bert traversed the entirety of Theatre’s Cedar Rapids’ proscenium—up one side, across the top, and down the other.

We are so lucky to have such talented actors and actresses in the corridor, and the musicians who provided the accompaniment were superb. The set, as expected with a TCR show, was exquisite. The Banks’ yellow house glided and off stage, in counterpoint to the darkened sky and chimneys that rose from the floor to provide the rooftops of London.

The concession stand features a drink called “A Spoonful of Sugar” which I imbibed. It tasted like a melted snow cone to me; delicious and blue.

This production of Mary Poppins was a lot of fun. Unlike some shows, it did not leave me questioning why I didn’t just watch the movie. The kid actors are ones to keep an eye on. The effects are magical, and the show will leave you with a song—for me, that song was “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” but it could be any number of the hits.

Mary Poppins continues at Theatre Cedar Rapids through May 24. Sundays at 2:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, and special Thursday showings on May 7, 14 at 7:30pm. However, word on the street is they'll be adding performances, so check the website for updates.

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