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Mary Poppins
Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
Book by Julian Fellowes
New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Co-Created by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter
Variety Theatre
October 19, 2019

Variety Theatre is currently revisiting one of its successful more recent productions, Mary Poppins, last staged in 2015. It’s a popular show for a reason, with larger-than-life characters, familiar songs and a story that many people remember from the iconic 1964 film, even though the stage version differs from the film in several notable ways. With this Variety staging, the focus is on inventive staging and choreography as is usual, and that’s a highlight, along with some fun technical features and an engaging cast.

If you’ve only seen the film of Mary Poppins, this version will seem familiar and new all at the same time. The story is mostly the same, as the “practically perfect” nanny of the title (Erica Stephan) swoops in to help the struggling Banks family, led by officious father George (Michael James Reed) and conflicted mother Winifred (Heather Matthews), along with their precocious and neglected children Jane (Taylor Gilbert) and Michael (Gabe Cytron) in early 20th-Century London. Also helping out is cheerful Cockney Jack-of-all-trades Bert (Drew Humphrey), who joins Mary and the children on various adventures and, in this version, narrates the story. While the gist of the story is the same as the film, some of the details have been changed up, leading up to a similar but somewhat different conclusion. For instance, more of George Banks’s backstory is included here, along with his imperious, terrorizing childhood nanny Miss Andrew (Debby Lennon). Also, some of the characters from the Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers are included here that weren’t in the film, and some of the movie songs have been reset to different situations. It’s a fun story overall, although I have to admit I prefer the film. Still, there are some excellent moments here, and some memorable new songs such as “Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen If You Let It”.

The casting here is, for the most part, excellent, and like all Variety shows it features an outstanding youth ensemble featuring the Variety Children’s Charity’s Variety kids and other talented young performers. In fact, the ensemble moments are the most memorable here, featuring Lara Teeter’s inventive choreography and some fun flying effects by Flying by Foy, involving various youth ensemble members in addition to Mary Poppins herself. Stephan is a fine Mary, with a strong voice and excellent chemistry with the especially energetic Humphrey and the kids, although she takes a while to find her energy and her first appearance doesn’t display quite the sense of presence that the role requires. Gilbert and Cytron give winning performances as Jane and Michael, and Reed and Matthews work well together as the parents. There are also standout performances from Zoe Vonder Haar as housekeeper Mrs. Brill and John Kinney as household servant Robertson Ay. Also worth noting is Lennon’s small but scene-stealing performance as the menacing Miss Andrew, showing off her excellent operatic voice and strong stage presence.

Technically, the show looks about as one would expect, putting the large stage at the Touhill Performing Arts Center to good use. Dunsi Dai’s set consists of a series of colorful backdrops that are, at times, reminiscent of the look of the film, as are the costumes by Kansas City Costume Co. There’s also excellent lighting design by Nathan Scheuer, sound design by Rusty Wandall, and a first-rate orchestra conducted by music director Dr. Marc Schapman.

Overall, I would say this Mary Poppins is what audiences would expect.  It’s big, colorful, and well-cast, with those memorable songs that will probably play in your head for the rest of the day. It’s especially strong in the ensemble elements, with Variety’s excellent inventive staging. It’s an entertaining production from Variety, sure to appeal to all ages.

Variety Theatre is presenting Mary Poppins at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center until October 27, 2019

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