Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The movie and stage musical are based on Travers' series of young children's books which are set in 1900s London. The story follows the adventures of Mary Poppins, who appears one day, unannounced, at the Banks family home in London to serve as their nanny after a series of previous nannies have walked out due to being unable to manage the out of control Banks' children, Jane and Michael. With her magical ways and stern but warm personality, Mary improves the dynamics of all of the members of the slightly dysfunctional Banks family.
The musical uses most of the Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman score from the film, including the movie hits "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Feed the Birds," plus adds some new songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. While most of the new tunes are just serviceable, a few, including Mary's jaunting introduction song "Practically Perfect" and the uplifting "Anything Can Happen," are quite good. The book by Julian Fellowes (who a few years after this musical first premiered would become incredibly well known for creating "Downton Abbey") combines elements from both the film and the book series and manages to establish both shaded, realistic characters and the sense of imagination that Mary encourages.
However, the musical is overly long, which could prove taxing for young audience members. And, while ABT's leads are very good, the scenic design is somewhat lacking and the pacing a bit off which doesn't help in covering the overly stuffed plot and shortcomings in the show, something that wasn't always noticeable in previous productions I've seen of this show.
Fortunately, the main cast for this production is superb, led by Renée Kathleen Koher's excellent portrayal of Mary and Chris McNiff's warm and direct portrayal of Mary's chimney sweep friend Bert, who also serves as narrator. Koher has appeared in over 20 ABT shows, from ensemble parts to lead roles, and she is simply perfect in getting across the combination of strict, firm and slightly cross, yet also fun, well-meaning and ultimately loving Mary. McNiff's direct delivery of his narration provides an appropriate sense of realism to the serious plot and dramatic themes of the show while his upbeat, mischievous demeanor and energetic dancing add a big dose of comedy and sparkle to the many elaborate production numbers. Both Kohler and McNiff have excellent singing voices which excel on the many well-known songs.
As George and Winifred, the Banks parents, Jamie Parnell and Beatrice Crosbie are very good in showing how Mary's presence in the household changes them, with Parnell's portrayal of George Banks' journey from the self-centered and selfish father to a man who learns to value his family quite moving. Crosbie is just as good in showing the sense of strength Winifred Banks learns to realize she has simply from Mary's not exactly subliminal suggestions.
In the supporting cast, Chae Clearwood and Conner Morley add plenty of levity as the frustrated and clumsy housekeeping staff in the Banks house. Clearwood also plays the Bird Woman and delivers a quite moving duet of "Feed the Birds" with Kohler. Also, Kathleen Berger is simply superb as the evil nanny Miss Andrew, and delivers a soaring "Brimstone and Treacle" in the second act, as well as portraying the fun-loving, spirited Mrs. Corry who, with Kohler, McNiff and the entire cast, joyously sings "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Director Clayton Phillips achieves warm and moving performances from the cast while also keeping the sweetness factor in check, which lets the slightly serious plot play out naturally and realistically. He and choreographer Kurtis Overby also add an abundance of magic and sheer joy to the upbeat production numbers. While Glen Sears' set design features a fairly large set to represent three locations in the Banks' home, with the exception of a large stage curtain that fleshes out the street outside the Banks home and a series of bright, varied lights on the back wall from William C. Kirkham's colorful light design, the rest of the set is fairly minimal, which is a slight drawback for an otherwise magical production.
While the stage adaptation of Mary Poppins may be a bit long and features several new songs that are just serviceable, it still features those beloved songs from the movie as well as a beautiful message about the importance of family and the always necessary life lesson that it's important to not only take time to enjoy your friends and family but also the beauty of the world around you. With just a few small shortcomings, ABT's production features an excellent cast of actors who do an exceptional job in bringing these classic characters to vibrant life.
Mary Poppins, June 30th, 2018, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria, and then moves to the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix for performances from July 6 - July 22, 2018. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.
Based on the books by P. L. Travers