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Phoenix
Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Mary Poppins
Phoenix Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Anything Goes, Oliver!, Wait Until Dark and A Child's Christmas in Wales


Trisha Hart Ditsworth, Toby Yatso and Cast
"Practically perfect" is a phrase that P. L. Travers' iconic literary character Mary Poppins uses to refer to herself. Travers' series of children's books about the infamous nanny set in 1900s London were turned into the classic 1964 Walt Disney film Mary Poppins, which was then expanded into a big family friendly stage musical in 2004. While calling Mary Poppins "practically perfect" makes perfect sense, saying the same thing when describing the superb production from Phoenix Theatre is practically an understatement.

The book series, the Disney film and the musical all follow the adventures of nanny Mary Poppins who visits the Banks family in London and, with her magical ways, improves the dynamics of the dysfunctional family. The musical uses most of the Sherman brothers song score from the Disney film, plus some new songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. And, while one or two of the new songs don't quite match the simple brilliance of the movie hits "Chim Chim Cher-ee" "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Feed the Birds," several are quite good, including "Practically Perfect" and "Anything Can Happen." The book by Julian Fellowes (of "Downton Abbey" fame) combines elements from both the film and the book series yet manages to still get across the sense of imagination that Mary encourages, something easy to do on film or in a book, but not always so easy to portray on stage.

The cast for this Phoenix Theatre production is exceptional, led by Trish Hart Ditsworth's excellent portrayal of the strict, yet fun and ultimately loving Mary, and Toby Yatso's spirited take on Mary's chimney sweep friend Burt. Ditsworth has the exact disposition to realize the stern, somewhat cross, yet completely well-meaning Poppins. Her voice excels on the many well-known songs and the new ones as well. Yatso's long, rubbery legs bring an element of comical theatricality to the fun loving Bert. His dancing is superb, from his waltz with Mary during "Jolly Holiday" to his exuberant tap dancing, with a surprise added bonus in "Step in Time." They are both absolutely perfect in bringing these classic characters to vibrant life.

Katie Brown and Isaac Speyer are a winning duo as young Jane and Michael Banks. Speyer is absolutely adorable, with perfect delivery of some of the best comic lines in the show. As the Banks parents, Shana Bousard and Clay Sanderson are equally as good, with Bousard exhibiting a nice sense of strength as the self-reliant mother, and Sanderson equally adept at showing the selfish father's stubbornness. Both also do well in demonstrating how Poppins' not exactly subliminal suggestions change them.

In the supporting cast Sally Jo Bannow and Lucas Coatney are funny as the Banks' frustrated housekeeping staff and Christy Welty has a pure, clear voice as the Bird Woman delivering a touching "Feed the Birds" as a duet with Ditsworth. Johanna Carlisle is a gem as both the evil nanny Miss Andrew, complete with wild shifty eye expressions during her solo number "Brimstone and Treacle," and a complete joy as Mrs. Corry who sings "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" with Ditsworth and the whole cast.

Director Michael Barnard finds a way to not over-sentimentalize the storyline, allowing the impact of Mary's involvement on the Banks family to play out organically. So while you still may shed a tear or two, you won't feel like you were forced to do so. Barnard and choreographer Sam Hay have combined to deliver several exceptional show stopping numbers, including "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which is an explosion of color, movement and song, and the exuberant high flying "Step in Time."

Creative elements are sublime with Robert Kovach's scenic design a combination of two-sided rotating large set pieces and moveable flats to portray the various rooms in the Banks' house and other locations in the show. Judy Ryerson's costumes include a wide range of stunning colors from the use of pastels in the "Jolly Holiday" sequence, to the vibrant colors in "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and the dark suits, coats and hats in "Step in Time." Michael H. Eddy's lighting includes brilliant hues and shades of every color in the rainbow, with added lighting effects during the more magical moments of the show, and Dave Temby's sound design provides an exceptionally clear sound field. Alan Ruch provides excellent musical direction and achieves a rich, lively sound from the orchestra.

Full of lively characters and important lessons about taking time to enjoy your loved ones as well as your surroundings, this is an exuberant, lively musical with fun songs and memorable characters that families can enjoy together. Phoenix Theatre's production of Mary Poppins is simply perfect.

Mary Poppins runs through December 28th, 2014, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151.

Based on the books by P. L. Travers
Original Music & Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
Book by Julian Fellowes
New Songs & Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drew
Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh
Director / Musical Staging: Michael Barnard
Resident Musical Director: Alan Ruch
Choreographer: Sam Hay
Resident Dramaturge: Pasha Yamotahari
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Scenic Designer: Robert Kovach
Costume Designer: Judy Ryerson
Wig Designer: Gerard Kelly
Resident Props Designer: Katie McNamara
Director of Production: Mark Reynolds
Associate Production Manager: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Samantha Monson*
Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Elias*

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Mrs. Brill: Sally Jo Bannow*
Ensemble: Skyler Bean
Ensemble /Valentine: Lucas Blair
Mrs. Banks: Shana Bousard*
Jane Banks: Katie Brown
Ensemble: Nic Bryan
Miss Andrew / Mrs. Corry / Katie Nana: Johanna Carlisle
Robertson / Von Hussler / Park Keeper: Lucas Coatney
Ensemble Dance: Laura Christian
Ensemble: Kate E. Cook
Mary Poppins: Trisha Hart Ditsworth
Ensemble: Claire Flatz
Ensemble: Jonathan Furedy*
Chairman / Admiral / Northbrook: Robert Kolby Harper*
Ensemble /Neleus: Sam Hay*
Ensemble: Jenny Hintze
Ensemble: Jonathan Holdsworth
Ensemble: Shelby Jensen
Ensemble: Ryan Kleinman
Mr. Banks: Clay Sanderson
Michael Banks: Isaac Speyer
Ensemble: Laurie Trygg
Ensemble: Alli Villines
Mrs. Lark / Bird Woman: Christy Welty
Bert: Toby Yatso*

*Members of Actorsí Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.


Photo: Erin Evangeline Photography / Phoenix Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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