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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Mary Poppins and
Lost in Yonkers


Lindsey Bliven and cast
Photo by Mark Garvin
It's hard to find much fault with the Walnut Street Theatre's production of Mary Poppins. It's not a slavish imitation of the classic Disney movie; considering the movie's animated sequences, that would be quite hard to pull off. The stage version, in a move that was apparently made to satisfy the estate of Poppins' creator, author P.L. Travers, includes changes to the plot and to the score. Some changes work better than others. But it all ends up going down, as one of the songs puts it, in a most delightful way.

Mary Poppins is the most lavish-looking production I've seen on the Walnut's stage, with colorful, eye-popping costumes by George T. Mitchell and handsome sets by J Branson. Director Wayne Bryan handles the multiple scene changes impressively, using lighting changes to make them glide by almost seamlessly. He also uses his cast effectively, taking a story that could easily be played with too much sentimentality or too much severity and lets the actors take a comfortable middle ground. That "practically perfect" nanny, Mary Poppins herself, is played by Lindsey Bliven with more sweetness than sternness (plus a gorgeous soprano). And there's a touching amount of affection and compassion from Jeffrey Coon and Rebecca Robbins as Mary's employers, Mr. and Mrs. Banks. There's also a funny, outlandish turn by Deborah Jean Templin as Miss Andrew, a villainous ex-nanny who makes a most unwelcome return to the Banks household.

A few of the Sherman Brothers' songs from the film have been eliminated—there's no Uncle Albert and no "I Love to Laugh"—but most of the better-known songs remain. A series of new songs by British songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have been added, and most of these fit in smoothly (although "Playing the Game," a song that calls the Banks children to task for mistreating their toys, is just bizarre). And some of the show's replacements for the missing animation are excessive (do we really need dancing lions?). Choreographer Linda Goodrich has staged most of the musical numbers to be showcases for Mary's magic and to spotlight David Elder's dandy tap dancing as Bert, a most impeccably-dressed chimney sweep.

The book, by "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes, teaches the requisite life lessons to Mr. and Mrs. Banks and their children (well-played at my performance by Grace Matwijec and Nicky Torchia, who alternate in their roles). It's all done with a light touch and a lot of class. And when Mary Poppins flies off into the sunset, you can't help but feel a little uplifted too.

Mary Poppins runs through January 4, 2014, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 - $95, with premium seating available, and are available online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.



David Nate Goldman, Kyle Klein II and Joy Franz
Photo courtesy Bristol Riverside Theatre
At Bristol Riverside Theatre, there's another treat: a sweet and sensitive production of Lost in Yonkers, a play I first saw nearly a decade ago at the Walnut. Neil Simon won a Pulitzer Prize for this superb play, a fictionalized version of an episode from his childhood in which members of an extended family are all tested in unexpected ways.

It's 1942, and teenagers Jay and Arty are being raised by their widowed father Eddie. Eddie's debts have forced him to go on the road to get work, so he leaves his boys in the hands of their cruel grandmother, a nasty piece of work who survived a tough childhood in Germany and is determined to make everyone else suffer the way she did. To the boys, Grandma's behavior is unfathomable; when Jay says "She's in a bad mood today," Arty cracks "You mean all those other days she was in a good mood?" Making the boys' stay with Grandma bearable are the other people in the household: Uncle Louie, a low-level mobster who survived by fighting back against his mother, and Aunt Bella, a mentally challenged young woman whose spirits were crushed because she couldn't fight back.

These are rich, deep characters, and director Keith Baker and his cast make the most of them. Joy Franz's Grandma is steadfast, never allowing anyone to see a crack in her fašade, but delighting in seeing others weaken—like Bruce Graham's anxiety-ridden Eddie, and Karen Peakes as Aunt Gert, who can barely get a sentence out. Danny Vaccaro is all toughness and attitude as Uncle Louie, while David Nate Goldman and Kyle Klein II are charming as the two young brothers, with Goldman especially strong when he confronts Louie. But the play really belongs to Eleanor Handley as Bella. Handley bounds into the living room with an ungainly gait and greets her nephews with a goofy, overeager smile—but when her mother begins talking, that smile disappears, crushed by the memory of a million tiny defeats. Handley succeeds at showing Bella's resilience; when she finally confronted her mother near the end of the play, a man sitting behind me whispered "She's the smart one."

Jason Simms' single set design for the family's apartment is lovely and authentic—perfect for this production.

Lost in Yonkers runs through Sunday, November 30, 2014, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. Ticket start at $31, with discounts available for students, groups and military personnel, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100 or online at www.BRTStage.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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