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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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School of Rock
Based on the Paramount Movie Written by Mike White
Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, New Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Laurence Connor
Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter
The Fox Theatre
January 16, 2018

Cast of School of Rock
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national tour

As far turning popular movies into musicals goes, School of Rock makes more sense than others, at least on paper. It’s a show about rock music, after all, with music by a composer not unfamiliar with the genre, having composed a few “rock operas” back in the day. It’s also a good casting opportunity for talented young performers, who actually play their instruments live on stage. The national tour is at the Fox now, and it’s a fun show, even if the story isn’t necessarily the most credible.

I haven’t seen the movie, and all I had seen of the musical before was the brief performance by the orginal Broadway cast on the Tony Awards broadcast. Still, although I knew the basic idea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The story, as it is, is a little bit thin, and it’s the characters, and the live music, that really make the show. The story follows aspiring rock guitarist Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti), who is kicked out of the rock band he helped found shortly before the band, No Vacancy, is due to audition for a “Battle of the Bands” competition. The downcast Dewey lives with his long-time friend and ex-rocker Ned (Matt Bittner) and his controlling girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo). Ned is a substitute teacher now, having long given up dreams of rock n’ roll glory, but one day when Ned isn’t home, Dewey answers a phone call from Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), principal of the exclusive Horace Green prep school, offering Ned a sub job. Dewey, attracted by the offered salary, poses as Ned and takes the job instead, intending to spend the days goofing off and letting the school kids do whatever they want, until he hears them playing classical music and decides that he’s going to turn them into a rock band, and that they are going to be his ticket to the Battle of the Bands. The kids have a range a personalities and insecurities, and after a time, Dewey helps them learn to expresses themselves via rock music, and they in turn teach him a lesson about responsibility. Also, Dewey’s unorthodox attitude and teaching methods begin to affect the morale of the other teachers. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s really not that difficult to guess where this story is going to go, even if you haven’t seen the film. The plot is more than a little predictable, as well as being implausible, but the performances, and the genuine sense of bonding between Dewey, the kids, and eventually Rosalie, makes the show work. There’s also some good music here, from the upbeat “You’re In the Band”, to the confrontational “Stick It to the Man”, to the plaintive “If Only You Would Listen”, to the hard-driving, motovational title song.

The real draw of this show is the live music, played on stage by the child performers with energy and style. The lead role of Dewey is also important, as he is the focus of the story, and Colletti manages to make the intially selfish character interesting and compelling. He’s got a lot of charm and stage presence, and he particularly shines in the classroom scenes and in scenes with the excellent Sharp as Rosalie. Sharp combines a great voice with strong comic timing and manages to make an underwritten role stand out. The rest of the adult cast is good as well, but aside from Colletti and Sharp, the kids really make the show, from Ava Briglia as bossy band manager Summer, to Gianna Harris as shy but vocally gifted Tomika, to Phoenix Schulman as guitarist and songwriter Zack, to Theodora Silverman as cellist-turned-bass player Katie, to Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton as drummer Freddy, to Theo Mitchell-Penner as insecure keyboardist Lawrence, to John Michael Pitera as enthusiastic band stylist Billy, and more. The entire cast of kids is great–putting on a great show playing their instruments with attitude, and believably portraying the transformation from sheltered prep school kids to confident rockers.

The show’s technical elements are impressive, as well, with a versatile set and colorful costumes by Anna Louizos, dazzling rock-show lighting by Natasha Katz, and clear sound design by Mick Potter. There’s also a strong band led by music director Martyn Axe in addition to the kid performers.

Overall, this is an entertaining show. The characters are likable, lending an air of credibility to the not entirely convincing plot. The stars of the show, though, are the band–Dewey and the child performers–and the energy of the music itself.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Rob Colletti Lexie Dorsett Sharp
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national Tour

The national tour of School of Rock is running at the Fox Theatre until January 28, 2018

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