Mary Poppins

Independent Musical Productions is running a truly impressive production of Mary Poppins through next weekend at the Lee High School Mainstage theatre. This show is “practically perfect in every way”, and is absolutely worth the ticket price.

This musical is an adaptation of the movie we all know with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but it is just that–an adaptation. It is not merely the movie transported to the stage. The songs are present, in modified form, and the characters and plot are also generally the same. The movie placed an emphasis on the “magic” of Mary Poppins (tea parties on the ceiling, carousel rides across the countryside, and animated penguin waiters), in order to capture the imagination of the young kids. It also had a message for the older crowd, embodied in the transformation of the father, Mr. Banks, about parents who put too much emphasis on work and money, and ignore spending time with their kids. This play keeps all that (though some of the “magic” understandably has to change to accommodate being live onstage), but also adds a couple more messages. The best addition to the script is the update to the mother’s story, as we see her struggling to figure out what her role is in life, and not sure she wants to be just what society expects of “Mrs. Banks”. There is also a message about children who don’t treat their toys well, but that is less clear, and frankly, I’m glad my kids didn’t quite get that part, because it comes across a bit heavy-handed. That said, this is almost a sung-through musical, with the orchestra hardly ever stopping, and the action, songs, and dances coming non-stop, for almost three hours.

This script inspires me to pause for a moment to discuss the definition of “lead actor”, which can have a couple different meanings.  The most common one being the actor with the largest part, the most time onstage, or the most lines or solo singing. There is, however, another way to look at it, and that’s to define it as the characters who “change”–the ones with an arc, or a personal, internal journey that the audience witnesses. There are a number of plays where the person with the most stage time is, in a dramatic sense, merely the force, or impetus, that acts on the other characters, being the reason for their journey of self-discovery. And that’s the case with Mary Poppins, with many characters that could be referred to as a “lead actor”, depending on how one defines the term. “Mary Poppins” herself has arguably the most time onstage and the most solo singing, but she never changes–she is the force that acts on the other characters. “Bert”, the multi-talented street performer who accompanies Mary and the kids on their adventures, is just along for the ride. He gets plenty of stage time, singing and dancing included, but isn’t even really a cause of anyone’s transformation. There is a clear argument to be made for the Banks family, as a whole, being the “lead actor” for this show. Unlike in the movie, where it is just the father who “changes”, in this stage version, the entire family, kids included, have lessons they need to learn. While the “magic” keeps the audience entertained, it’s the Banks family, and their collective journey, that ties it all together, and makes this an interesting story and play.

IMP has truly done a masterful job with this production. Some of the technical elements could clearly use more rehearsal, but frankly, my negative comments are largely nitpicking. The direction, by Vivienne Atkins and Peter-John Sligting, is exceptional, with the action progressing rapidly, and blocking and staging that well supports the plotlines and character moments. The imagination they put into this show, in coordination with Karl King’s technical direction, make this a wonderful, fun evening.  Barry Petty’s music direction is likewise exceptional, with beautiful songs throughout, and an orchestra (with a ridiculously difficult score) which supports the production with ease. Dahnelle Reynolds’ choreography is impressive, with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” an absolutely stunning show-stopper.

The acting is uniformly well-done throughout. Jenni Wood, as “Mary Poppins” herself, tackles this iconic role with ease, gliding through every number and scene with aplomb.  She lacks the presence to truly own the stage, but is technically perfect, with a nice characterization, and a beautiful singing voice. Patrick Johnson, as “Bert”, virtually steals the show, and is truly wonderful to watch onstage, with an impressive comfort level that just oozes out over the audience. Tyler Henderson, as the father, “George Banks”, has an incredible singing voice, and does an exceptional job of showing that struggle that all parents face, of balancing work and family. Sonja Eames, as the mother, “Winifred Banks”, is frankly amazing, breathing wonderful life into this more developed character than we are used to from the movie. Maddie Johnson and Joey Smith, as the children “Jane” and “Michael”, are truly stellar and fun to watch. From among the remainder of the huge cast of impressive supporting characters, Zach Thomas, as “Neleus”, and Heidi Crane, as the anti-Poppins nanny, “Miss Lark”, are stand-outs, bringing wonderful contributions to the play.

This production is technically beautiful, with neat special effects, some of which this reviewer is still trying to figure out.  The scenery, designed by Karl King and Gayle Forry, is truly impressive.  Designing the ability to get all the pieces on and off quickly, while still keeping everything beautiful, is an impressive feat.  Once the stage crew has had a chance to rehearse, the technical execution will be impressive to behold.  More rehearsal is needed with the bottomless carpet bag, to truly sell that bit; and it’s a shame the escape from the stairway landing in the Banks’ living room was so narrow.  The illusion of a complete Banks home is killed just a bit every time an actor climbs the stairs, when we see them literally turning sideways to exit, and clearly stepping DOWN, as they head “upstairs”.  It’s a nitpick, but extending that platform by a foot, and widening the exit by even six inches, would have paid huge dividends.  Given the greatness the set otherwise is, tiny little things can make all the difference.  The lighting design, by Martez Clemmons and Derrick Byars, is exceptional.  The spotlight operators need a touch more practice, and the actors need to learn where their lighting ends, but the design itself is simply beautiful, and does a wonderful job of supporting the “magic” of the production.  Julia Ramsey’s props were all perfect, and if her work included preparing the items used for some of the magical effects, then she deserves a standing ovation for imagination and execution.  The overall character looks, created by the team of Julie Hornstein (costumes), Vivienne Atkins (hats), Andrea Johnson (hair), and Pam Dilworth and Stephanie Davidson (makeup), is truly stunning.  The sheer number of costumes involved, and wide variety of character looks, makes the final accomplishment even more impressive, given that they all seemed just right.  Sound direction for a show like this is largely a question of balancing the microphones appropriately against the live music in the pit, and David Knies does a fine job, with the dialogue and songs clearly audible and blended.  The character “flying”, ramrodded by Audrea Cannon, is a nice addition to the show.

Tickets for this show are a bit steeper than most other community theatres in town, but by one definition, IMP is a “professional” organization, with every participant receiving at least a stipend.  And the results are plain to see.  The amount of work, and attention to detail, are plainly evident, and the result is a fun, enjoyable, impressive evening.  This show is absolutely worth your time and money.  Performances continue daily (except Monday) through next Sunday.  Show times and ticket information can be found here.

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