Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical, like the movie, is based on Travers' series of young children's books that follows the adventures of the infamous nanny in 1900s London. The books were turned into the classic 1964 Walt Disney film and expanded with new songs and a slightly updated story for the 2004 musical. The plot centers on the Banks family, who live in London. Mary Poppins instantly appears when they are in desperate need of a nanny, and, with her magical ways, improves the dynamics of the dysfunctional family. Over the course of the show, Mary imparts important life lessons about taking time to appreciate your loved ones and to enjoy your surroundings, which serve as good reminders for people of all ages.
The show uses most of the beloved Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman song score from the Disney film, including the well-known hits "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Feed the Birds," and includes some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The book by Julian Fellowes seamlessly combines darker elements from the book series, which is a major plus as it gives added depth and realism to the story, with many of the bright, upbeat and memorable movie moments. Fellowes also beautifully illustrates Mary's playful sense of imagination, which she encourages those around her to partake in, as well as her magical abilities.
The main cast is superb. Heidi-Liz Johnson wonderfully gets across Mary's perfect combination of strictness and good intentions with undercurrents of fun and love. Under Johnson's capable hands you never lose faith that Mary will save this family, even if her demeanor is somewhat stern and slightly cross. Johnson's voice excels on every song she sings with bright, beautiful notes. Nicholas Gunnell is joyful and spirited with plenty of charm and a playful mischievousness as Mary's chimney sweep friend Bert, who serves as the narrator for the show. Gunnell's strong and clear signing voice, limber limbs, and wink in his eye instill the role with a jolt of vibrancy and theatricality. MET has included a flying component in the show, which adds a few magical moments for Johnson as well as a fun bit for Gunnell in "Step in Time" which is even more elaborate than what was seen in the recent production at Arizona Broadway Theatre.
As the Banks' children, Samantha Gibbons and Elliot Noah Thompson deliver spirited portrayals of two rambunctious, fun-loving and adorable kids. Gibbons' line delivery is perfect, while Thompson's comic timing is exceptional. Tom Mangum and Danielle Hale are equally good as their parents. Mangum exceeds in getting across the workaholic, irritable, and somewhat selfish and stubborn George, while Hale is very good at portraying the strength and self-reliance of Winifred.
In the supporting cast, Suze St. John and Dan Marburger are humorous as the overly frustrated members of the Banks' housekeeping staff. St. John also plays the Bird Woman and delivers a poignant duet of "Feed the Birds" with Johnson. Hector Coris is a hoot as two unique, unusual, and comically delicious women, one of whom has an abundance of joy and jubilance, the other a dominant force that invites fear and inflicts a reign of terror upon the household. While having these two roles played by a man in drag may seem a bit unusual, it really works, while adding an element of zaniness to the production.
Director David Chorley does an exceptional job. He adds many original comic bits throughout that add pops of humor while always making sure the seriousness of the story is never lost. This is a fairly long show, with an intricate plot, and while other productions I've seen have plodded a bit in the second act, you never get that from Chorley's swiftly moving scene changes and fast pace. He also doesn't over sentimentalize the storyline, so you never feel like you were forced to shed a tear or two as the impact of Mary's involvement on the family comes across as natural. Choreographer Lynzee Foreman delivers some fun and infectious dances. Lorenzo Slavin's music direction achieves a gorgeous sound from both the cast and the small orchestra.
The creative elements are quite good, including Chorley's set design, which uses just a few small pieces for some of the scenes and very effective large designs for the nursery and kitchen. The layered backdrop provides a nice dimensional perspective of the London skyline. Corinne Hawkins' costumes are lovely and period perfect, including gorgeous yellow costumes for almost the entire ensemble for "Jolly Holiday" and an explosion of colors for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Angela Kabasan provides creative hair and makeup designs.
Full of exuberant moments, a terrific cast who create memorable characters, lively musical segments, and superb direction, Mesa Encore Theatre's Mary Poppins is a beautiful production of a beloved classic.
Mary Poppins, through November 18, 2018, at Mesa Encore Theatre, Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information on upcoming MET shows, call 480-644-6500 or visit mesaencoretheatre.com.
Based on the books by P. L. Travers