‘Mary Poppins’ at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre by Rick Schneider

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The stage version of the musical Mary Poppins has finally reached the Washington area regional theater scene, and it has been well worth the wait.

Step in Time: Mary Poppins (Catharine Kay) and the Chimney Sweeps​. Photo Credit: Adam Lehman.
“Step in Time”: Mary Poppins (Catharine Kay) and the Chimney Sweeps​. Photo by Adam Lehman.

This recent Broadway hit is based on the 1964 Walt Disney movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but it’s not exactly the same story. The stage show had a long time to develop, as Walt Disney was never able to obtain the stage rights from the original stories’ author, P.L. Travers.  Instead, she gave the stage rights to Cameron Macintosh – producer of Cats, Les Misérables, and Phantom of the Opera. Part of the problem was that Travers never did like the Disney movie, so in order to convince Travers to let him put the story on stage, Macintosh had to promise the author that the musical would not be as sugary sweet as Disney had made it. Indeed, the original Travers’ stories about the magical nanny actually had some rather dark and foreboding story lines. Still, Mackintosh knew that without the Disney songs, there would be little interest in a stage version. Thus, a partnership was born.

The result is a bright, lively musical that does in fact adhere closely to the Disney movie. Even if you have not revisited the movie in, well, decades, as soon as each character appears on stage, and as soon as each song begins, you will be transported back to a happier time and place in this production of Mary Poppins, directed by Carolyn Coulson, music directed by Thomas Albert, and choreographed by Edward Carignan. Mary Poppins is a nanny who brings her magic to the Banks’ household, although at this production at the Shenandoah Summer Music Festival, while the characters are strongly acted, much of the Disney magic is missing.

The underlying story is pretty basic. George and Winifred Banks (Jack Rowles and Tara Michelle Gesling) live in Edwardian England in the early 1900s with their high-spirited and trouble-making children, Jane and Michael (Ella Schnoor and Tyson Francis). Banker George is consumed with his career and making enough money to pay for everything. He seems to be doing fine, the household staff includes a cook, a butler of sorts, and a long line of nannies, none of whom stay very long. Winifred is a frustrated housewife, having given up her career as an actress, and while she longs for friendship outside the house, she can’t seem to gain entry into any of the proper social circles. Jane and Michael are a bit spoiled, and too often left to the care of their nanny. More to the point, they both long for more time with their parents, and too often get into mischief in the hopes that George and Winifred take notice of them. The arrival of that practically perfect nanny, Mary Poppins, throws the Banks household into upheaval and helps rework the family dynamics.

As Mary Poppins, Catharine Kay brings a bright, engaging soprano voice to the music, and is delightful to watch. She has the spunk and the no nonsense approach the character needs as she faces off with the Banks parents, the children, and the Holy Terror of nannies, Miss Andrews.

Mary Poppins is assisted in her quest to redeem the Banks family by Bert (Patrick Clealand Rosé), sometime artist, sometime chimney sweep, and all around good guy. Rosé plays Bert with high energy, and his quite capable dancing fills the bill, especially in “Step in Time” and “Jolly Holiday”. To this critic, however, Rosé seems far too young for the role, particularly in his scenes opposite Mary Poppins.

Jack Rowles (George Banks) and Tara Michelle Gesling (Winifred Banks) give engaging performances as the parents struggling with what marriage and family roles mean. As their children, Ella Schnoor (Jane) and Tyson Francis (Michael) are first-rate. Their voices are clear and distinct, and unlike some child actors, their speech is always understandable. Noticeably, when Schnoor and Francis sing together, their voices blend beautifully.

Standing out from the ensemble was Meg Stefanowicz as Miss Andrew, George Banks’ childhood nanny, otherwise known as The Holy Terror. Though a little young to carry off the character of a person who has to be older than George, Stefanowicz has great acting and singing chops, and her confrontation with Mary Poppins was as dramatic as this show gets.

Whitney Warrenfeltz (Mrs. Brill) and R.C. Hiers (Robertson Ay) are the cook and the butler of the Banks’ household. As comic relief, they play against each other with hilarious effect, and add a welcome dimension to the show.

The members of the Mary Poppins ensemble do a good job with all their various characters. Standouts include Lara Treacy as the Bird Woman, Kelsee Sweigard as Mrs. Corry, and Nick Nerangis as Admiral Boom and the Bank Chairman.

But sadly, much of the Disney magic is missing here. Of course, flying nannies (and a few other actors as well) are held up by steel cables, but the cables are always visible in the stage lights, and it’s just too obvious when other actors help the flying performers get disconnected after their flights. The offstage lift line for the kite is just as visible as Michael’s string, and there is no mystery to Mary’s carpet bag, from which she pulls a hat rack and mirror.

The original movie songs were written by the Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert, and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe were brought in to supplement the music. They did a flawless job, and you will be hard-pressed to determine exactly which songs were in the movie, and which were written just for this show. But from the first notes of the opening song, the tempo of the orchestra was too slow on opening night, robbing many of the songs of their energy. Still, unless this was an intentional artistic decision, that is something that is easily fixed as the performances continue.

The original Broadway sets won Mary Poppins its only Tony Award, and SSMT Set Designer William Pierson has created a fine version of the Banks’ home on Cherry Tree Lane, as well as various parks, the bank, and the rooftops of London. Costumes by Jennifer Flitton Adams were excellent, nicely depicting the early 1900s period, as well as alternate versions for such scenes as “Jolly Holiday.”

George (Jack Rowles), Winifred (Tara Michelle Gesling), Jane (Ella Schnoor), and Michael (Tyson Francis). Photo Credit: Alan Lehman.
George (Jack Rowles), Winifred (Tara Michelle Gesling), Jane (Ella Schnoor), and Michael (Tyson Francis). Photo by Alan Lehman.

The show stopper for Mary Poppins has always been the song, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and this version lives up to its reputation. Mrs. Corry provides the motivation for the song, and Mary, Bert, Jane, Michael, and the fine ensemble, deliver a first class, high energy number, which the audience loves, every time it appears in the show.

Mary Poppins is an enjoyable show for the entire family.

Running time: About two and a half hours, with an intermission.

Mary Poppins plays through August 3, 2014 at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, performing at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre – 1460 University Drive, in Winchester, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (540) 665-4569, or (877) 580-8025, or purchase them online.

LINKS

Meet the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Stars of SSMT’s Magical Premiere of ‘Mary Poppins’ Part One: Meet Catharine Kay and Patrick Clealand Rosé.

‘Searching for the Perfect Nanny: Meet the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Children of SSMT’s Magical Premiere of Mary Poppins’: Part Two: Ella Schnoor and Tyson Francis.