Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Mary Poppins
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Pike St. and Jeanie's review of The Odd Couple


El Beh, Wiley Naman Strasser, Rudy Guerrero,
and Sophia LaPaglia

Photo by Jessica Palopoli
As a parent, one of the delights of Mary Poppins (the 1964 Disney movie and, presumably, as my daughter and I never any of them, the P.L. Travers books) was the character's slightly subversive, anti-authoritarian nature. Mary was simultaneously a force of both chaos and order, upending life at 17 Cherry Tree Lane at the same time she brought it back into balance. Likewise, she was both a stern disciplinarian and a big softy whose love for her charges oozed from every pore no matter how hard she tried to hide it.

But the Mary Poppins featured in the San Francisco Playhouse production is more the strict taskmaster than the loving, though somewhat reserved, caregiver. As played by El Beh, she's more like a dominatrix from a South of Market S&M dungeon. Instead of her signature umbrella, this Mary would be more at home with a riding crop in her hand. I half expected her to call George Banks a "toad" and order him to his knees to clean her boots with his tongue.

But perhaps you are unfamiliar with this classic character of children's literature, so allow me to set the scene for you: the Banks family—father George, mother Winifred, and their two lovable but mischievous children, Jane and Michael—have a hard time keeping nannies, as the childrens' pranks usually drive them to the door within weeks. George has a high-pressure job at a bank and his interaction with his children is limited to a goodnight nod when he sends them up to the nursery at bedtime. Mother Winifred is gentler, but—this being early 20th century London—accedes to her husband's wishes and leaves the parenting to the succession of nannies.

But when the latest nanny hightails it out, the children write their own advertisement outlining their desires in the charming song "The Perfect Nanny." George scoffs at their nonsense, tears up the ad and tosses it in the hearth. But it magically makes its way to Mary Poppins, who appears at the Banks' door—and proceeds to transform their lives.

Soon Mary works her magic, showing the children a different way of looking at the world, and imparting a greater understanding of their parents and the pressures they face. She is helped in this effort by Bert (Wiley Naman Strasser), a jack-of-all-trades (including street artist and chimney sweep), and characters—both real and fantastical—they meet during their excursions in the nearby park. By the time Mary flies away to help another troubled family, the Bankses will have developed a whole new appreciation for the value each of them brings to the family unit.

Despite the overly stern nature of El Beh's Mary Poppins, the rest of the cast compensate for her strictness with lovely, graceful performances. As George, Ryan Drummond is marvelous: his disconnection from the children reflects his own upbringing by a strict nanny, and when Mary finally cracks his crusty exterior, the warmth Drummond exudes fills the theater. He's able to deliver a wonderful comic turn as both the chilly patriarch and newly awakened loving father.

But the most delightful performances of the night belonged to Wiley Naman Strasser and Katrina Lauren McGraw. As Bert, Strasser brings both a lovely tenor and an easy grace to the role. Strasser's dancing is elegant and understated; he never seems to be working at his steps—they flow like honey on a summer day. His singing is also delightfully unmannered and relaxed. The role may be the most challenging of the show, but Strasser never lets us see the hard work, only the delightful end product.

Katrina Lauren McGraw plays both the Bird Woman and Miss Andrew (George Banks' childhood nanny) and nails each of them. "Feed The Birds" is one of the loveliest melodies in the show, and McGraw delivers it with a sweetness and ease that powerfully reinforces its message: that caring for others less fortunate than ourselves brings great rewards. As the "holy terror" Miss Andrew, McGraw brings a gruff power that electrified the audience at the performance I attended. The cheers she received at curtain were proof that, as much as any cast member, McGraw owned the stage.

Despite the rather unfortunate tonal choices that were made here, Mary Poppins is still a delightful story with an appropriate holiday message: loving and caring for people other than yourself will bring happiness and personal fulfillment that will always elude the selfish and self-interested. That's a message that deserves repeating—not just during the holidays, but every day of the year.

Mary Poppins, through January 12, 2018, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays at 7:00pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 3:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $35-$125, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.


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