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Wednesday, 09 May 2012 22:37

A (mostly) jolly holiday with 'Mary Poppins' at the Peabody

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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statesman.com
statesman.com

The staging looks a bit cramped at times, especially in the big ensemble numbers, and the show itself feels a bit too long, but on the whole it truly is a jolly holiday with "Mary Poppins", thanks to solid production values and a great cast.

Based on both the classic Disney film and the original novels by P.L. Travers, “Mary Poppins” has been a huge hit both in London (where it originated in 2004) and on Broadway, where it has been running for over six years now, despite opening to mixed reviews. The current tour, while scaled back in scope from the original (Mary Poppins no longer flies out over the audience, for example, and the flying rigs are very visible), still provides its share of entertainment.

The book by Julian Fellowes sticks fairly close to the film but gives a bit more psychological depth to the Banks family. It felt like it could use some trimming, but that may just be due to the lack of some of the engaging technical flash of the original West End and Broadway productions. George Stiles and Anthony Drewe—who wrote the score of for the amiable musical “Honk!”—have expanded some of the songs the Sherman brothers wrote for the 1964 film and added several others. Some are merely serviceable but many, including the appealing “Anything Can Happen” and the insightful “Being Mrs. Banks”, add considerably to the show.

This production’s biggest asset, though, is its cast. They’re all exceptionally talented and energetic—an essential combination in a show as demanding as this one. Choreographer Matthew Bourne has given them an impressive array of flashy dances, especially for “Step in Time” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. They pull them off with precision, crowded stage and all.

Case Dillard is Bert, cockney jack-of-all-trades and the story’s narrator. The role requires a solid singer and dancer and Mr. Dillard is both. His Bert is a thoroughly charming fellow, whether strolling through the Technicolor garden of “Jolly Holiday” or dancing up and across the top of the proscenium (with one of those flying rigs) in “Step in Time”.

Rachel Wallace is a completely winning Mary Poppins. I don’t think she’s primarily a dancer, but she certainly holds her own in the absurdly complicated choreography for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. Besides, she has the lovely “light opera” voice that the role calls for and the equally important killer smile.

The first sentence in Elizabeth Broadhurst’s bio boasts of “over 1,000 performance of Mary Poppins on tour”, so it’s perhaps no surprise that she’s so completely winning as Mrs. Banks. She certainly makes the most of the additional material that fleshes out her character. Michael Dean Morgan has a kind of Monty Pythonesque quirkiness as Mr. Banks and he, too, finds all the added nuances provided by songs like “A Man Has Dreams”.

Q. Smith has a pair of plum roles as the Bird Woman (a touching performance of “Feed the Birds”) and the dreadful Miss Andrew, the Anti-Poppins. They are, to say the least, sharply contrasting characters and she’s great in both, with some real vocal pyrotechnics in “Brimstone and Treacle”.

On opening night, the roles of the Banks children were taken by Marissa Ackerman and Zachary Mackiewicz (they alternate with Cherish Myers and Zach Timson). Both were quite engaging, with none of the hesitancy that you sometimes see in very young performers.

Other fine performances which deserve a tip of the virtual topper include Tregony Shepherd as the acerbic cook Mrs. Brill, Blake Segal as the hapless Robertson Ay, Benn Atkin as the magically animated statue of Neleus, Tonya Thompson as the lively Mrs. Corry, and Ryan Hilliard as both Admiral Boom and the Bank Chairman.

Bob Crowley’s colorful sets (adapted from his more elaborate originals) and Jim Halliday’s equally vivid costumes look great and the ensemble of mostly local musicians under music director Daniel Bowling sounded fine. Richard Eyre’s direction keeps everything clear and focused.

As I mentioned earlier, the stage looks rather crowded at times, as if the producers had decided to put more actors up there than could be easily accommodated by the set’s false proscenium. I’m not sure whether this is a design issue or a problem with the wing space at the Peabody, but I was sometimes left with the sense that, to quote my companion, the show was “too big for the space”. There did appear to be some sort of wing-related issue on opening night when one of the scene trucks jammed before reaching stage center and the entire show had to stop for around five minutes until the problem was resolved.

Of course, unless you’re a champion curmudgeon or a theatre critic (insert snarky comment here), I doubt that you’ll find this production’s minor shortcomings to be obstacles to your enjoyment of the evening. If you love the movie or the books, I expect you’ll have a jolly holiday with this Mary. By all means, go and take the kids. Be aware, though, that the show runs over two hours and forty-five minutes with intermission, so a matinee might be best for the younger ones.

“Marry Poppins” runs through Sunday at the Peabody Opera House at 14th and Market. For more information, you may visit peabodyoperahouse.com.

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