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Review: ‘Mary Poppins’ at Olney Theatre Center

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How do you make a stage musical from a movie that was “Practically Perfect in Every Way”? A movie that won five Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects for cinematic magic tricks and a sequence combining animation and live action that would be impossible to reproduce onstage?

Rhett Guter (Bert), Henry Mason (Michael Banks), Patricia Hurley (Mary Poppins), and Audrey Kilgore (Jane Banks). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Rhett Guter (Bert), Henry Mason (Michael Banks), Patricia Hurley (Mary Poppins), and Audrey Kilgore (Jane Banks). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Well, first you go back to the source: the original books by P.L. Travers.  As it turns out, Travers did not think the movie was quite so perfect. In fact, she wept during the film’s premiere, not because she was so moved (as the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks implied) but because she hated the cartoon sequence and found the portrayal of her beloved, no-nonsense Mary Poppins silly and sentimental. When London uber-impresario Cameron Mackintosh approached Travers for the rights to create the stage version, she agreed — as long as no one from the film was involved, and the entire creative team was British.

As a result, a show we think we know turns out full to be of surprises.  With a book by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) and new songs and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drew, the new version keeps the movie’s setting and basic story, while adding new secondary characters from Travers’ books and giving existing characters richer motivations.  (For instance, ditzy Mrs. Banks ripping up her “Votes For Women” sash to make a tail for her children’s kite would hardly fly today; this Winnifred plays a more material role in saving her family.)

In fact, in this production at Olney’s Mainstage Theater, it is these secondary characters who shine. Played by members of the relatively small ensemble, new additions like the Park Keeper (James Frisby) and Mrs. Corry (Ashleigh King) are funny and delightful. The cook, Mrs. Brill (Dorea Schmidt), gives a bravura comic turn, at one point bringing the house down with one two-word exclamation. Benjamin Lurye earned his shre of laughs as the bumbling Robertson Ay.

And as one character notably missing from the original movie — a villain — treasured Olney veteran Valerie Leonard is a tour-de-force, with a deliciously operatic final battle with Mary Poppins.

As for the main characters, Mr. and Mrs. Banks (Karl Kippola and Eileen Ward) have more touching story arcs, and the children, Jane and Michael (Katharine Ford and Henry Mason, alternating with Audrey Kilgore and Tyler Quentin Smallwood), pretty much steal the show with some of the best comic lines.

Mary Poppins and Bert (Patricia Hurley and Rhett Gutter), eminently charming and accomplished performers, are somewhat hemmed in by the iconic nature of their roles. Perfect people are difficult to portray at the best of times, and when you are working in the shadow of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, there is little room to innovate. Some attempts to make the characters less sweet, both to match Travers’ original portrayal and to satisfy our modern taste, strike a slightly sour note — Bert’s sung prologues starting each act have an almost sinister edge, and some of Mary’s snarky comments seem rather mean. And Mary’s knocking out her charges with a snap of her fingers, (instead of singing them to sleep with the movie’s charming lullaby “Stay Awake”) is both funny and alarming. That said, the principals certainly have the voices, dancing prowess, and sheer star power needed to carry the show.

Speaking of dancing, Tara Jeanne Vallee’s choreography provides another delightful surprise — You haven’t seen “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or the Chimney Sweeps’ “Step in Time” until you’ve seen them done with tap dancing, including increasingly frenetic encores. The one slight drawback was that between the tapping and the strength of Music Director Timothy Splain’s capable 9-piece orchestra, it was difficult, at times, to hear some of the lyrics, a particular shame since they’re new. With luck, Sound Designer Jeffrey Dorfman can tweak the levels to boost the performers’ voices so they can all be heard as clearly as Mary Poppins’ impeccable diction.

Mary Poppins is the most technically demanding show mounted at Olney’s Mainstage in several years, and Director Jason King Jones’ production is more than up to the challenge. The huge and complex set, designed by Daniel Ettinger, captures the opulent Edwardian feel of the movie without trying to be absolutely realistic. Scenery that doesn’t fly in and out is often moved by the cast, who also operate charming puppets by Matthew Pauli representing birds, penguins and a hyperactive dog.

Rhett Guter (Bert) and the cast of 'Mary Poppins.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

Rhett Guter (Bert) and the cast of ‘Mary Poppins’ in ‘Step in Time!’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Colin K. Bills’ lighting nicely evokes the colors of Bert’s sidewalk paintings when needed. Erik Teague’s costumes are particularly lovely, with details of cut and trim that add to  the visual feast.

And what would Mary Poppins be without a touch of magic? Luckily, Olney had the benefit of Jim Steinmeyer, the original Illusions Consultant from the West End and Broadway productions — and it shows, particularly in the genuinely mystifying carpet bag scene. As for the crucial flying effects, in a medium-sized theater like the Mainstage, where no member of the audience is more than nine rows from the stage, it would be unrealistic to expect the mechanics of the trick to be totally invisible, so rather than trying to hide the wires, they have cast members operate them in a matter-of-fact but unobtrusive way.

Whether you’re unfamiliar with Mary Poppins or think you know it by heart, see Olney Theatre Center’s entertaining production. It is charming, magical, and surprising — and since it runs until January, it’s a perfect holiday outing for the whole family.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Mary Poppins plays through January 1, 2017, at the Mainstage at Olney Theater Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1550.gif

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