Have yourself a little “Mary” Christmas this year, courtesy of Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Mary Poppins—The Broadway Musical borrows a “little” here, a “little” there, but it all adds up to something hugely different from the normal holiday fare.
It’s a wonderful excuse to get the family together, sit down for a great meal, and then thoroughly enjoy a live stage show that manages to be both fresh and familiar.
This is the 2004 London hit that went on to run an amazing six years in New York, becoming the 30th longest-running show in Broadway history. The fact that it’s the first time this award-winning dinner theatre is staging it should have musical fans flocking to Toby’s from every direction.
Adapted as much from the beloved children’s books by P.L. Travers as from the classic Walt Disney movie, it adds some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to the beloved Sherman Brothers’ score.
And note this: Even though the original show was produced by Cameron Mackintosh and features a crystal chandelier in some scenes, it never comes crashing down.
The spectacles here are more kid-sized. They include some wonderful bits of stage magic, some gravity-defying flying, a kitchen that throws its own tantrum, and the most graceful dancing by a stone statue you are ever likely to see.
Lovers of the Travers books may well embrace this adaptation as more faithful and less “sugary” than the film. Fans of the Sherman Brothers, though, might be disappointed at how the arrangements keep a lid on the songs’ more boisterous melodies and undercook their confectionary lyrics.
Bert the Cockney chimney sweep is the musical’s genial narrator, so it’s good to see the role in such professional hands at Toby’s. The multitalented Jeffrey Shankle plays Bert as so light-on-his-feet that we never doubt his ability to dance across “the rooftops of London.” He also has a fine voice with unerring pitch — a necessity in a score that always seems to be reaching for a darker shading or a moodier end note.
Slender and poised Maura Hogan returns to Toby’s in the role of Travers’ no-nonsense nanny, instantly branding the role with her own classical voice and bearing. She gets the show’s best new song, “Practically Perfect,” which sums up both the character and the performer.
Others making an outstanding contribution here are Elizabeth Rayca as the straitlaced Mrs. Banks, getting one of the evening’s most deserved ovations with her solo “Being Mrs. Banks”; and David Bosley-Reynolds as Mr. Banks, the show’s somewhat squishy Scrooge figure, whose change of heart is a long time coming.
Jane C. Boyle and David James are scene-stealers as the household servants and in various other roles. The amazing Heather Marie Beck brings a much-needed injection of life into Act II as the terrible Mrs. Andrews. Beck and Hogan’s smack down “battle of the nannies” leaves audiences squealing and panting with delight.
Julia Lancione is almost unrecognizable as the seemingly homeless “Bird Woman,” but she brings this production its most emotionally affecting moments with the song “Feed the Birds.”
A new song titled “Playing the Game,” on the other hand, seems designed to scold those in the audience who might abuse their toys. It is so far from enchanting that the audience on press night couldn’t decide whether to applaud when it was (thankfully) over.
The important roles of the two small Banks children, Jane and Michael, is double-cast at Toby’s. This theater always comes through with terrific child actors, and the night I attended, Samantha Bloom Yakaitis and Gavin Willard upheld that tradition with charm and thorough trooper pizzazz.
Special mention must also be made to Robert John Biedermann, who emcees the pre-show gaieties and then steps on stage in various colorful roles, and to trained classical dancer Andre Hinds whose performance as an animated statue may not be etched in stone but is forever etched in this reviewer’s memory.
Directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey have developed into an amazing team, combining experience and vision with seemingly endless drive and optimism. They squeeze a very complicated production and a huge cast into the intimate confines of Toby’s theater-in-the-round, yet manage to keep the strain from ever showing.
Credit for a smooth and always professional production also belongs to the live musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings and Barry Hamilton, and to the resourceful choreography of Mark Minnick for the big show-stoppers, “Jolly Holiday” and “Step in Time.”
Scenic and Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins plays an especially important role in this work of imagination. He comes through with a variety of special effects while never missing any of the more nuanced excitement on the center floor.
Contrary to expectations, this is a family show with strong literary leanings and a few frightening scenes. It is probably best appreciated by children old enough to read.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Mary Poppins plays through February 1, 2015 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia — 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS , or purchase them online.