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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 by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
July 6, 2022

Cast of Mary Poppins
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Mary Poppins has flown into the Muny for the second time. After an entertaining production nine years ago, the “Practically Perfect” nanny is back, and this time she has a bit of an edge. The latest presentation in the Muny’s 2022 season is big, vibrant, and sharper than ever, with a great cast and loads of energy, led by two stellar performers in the leading roles. 

While the stage show and the classic Disney film have much in common, they are not the same. The stage version–which debuted in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006–features some fairly significant changes. Differences include a new book that adjusts the story somewhat and includes elements from P.L. Travers’s books, as well as adding some new songs and changing the settings of some of the more familiar movie songs. It’s still the story of a mysterious and even magical nanny (Jeanna De Waal) who flies into the lives of the Banks family–children Jane (Laila Fantroy) and Michael (Gabe Cytron), and parents George (Nehal Joshi) and Winifred (Erin Davie). This family needs some help, as George is absorbed in his work at a bank and a professed need for “precision and order”, Winifred is feeling inadequate and neglected by her husband, and the children have been subjected to a series of sub-par nannies and have difficulty living up to their father’s rigid expectations. Soon, Mary Poppins arrives and, with the help of the charming jack-of-all-trades Bert (Corbin Bleu), shows the family what their world can be like if they just remember what is important. 

I’ve seen the stage show four times now, beginning with the London production in 2006, and including the last time the Muny presented it in 2013. While, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the stage version, I’ve had some issues with the way the adaptation has flattened out some of the characters, such as the the Banks parents and especially Winifred. Also, while I’ve seen excellent performers in the role of Mary, the performances always seem to take a while for her to establish that “spark” that she needs to carry the show. This production has remedied those issues to a large degree in the form of casting, as De Waal brings a bit of a wry edge to to Mary Poppins that works especially well with the slightly darker tone of the stage show. She’s also in excellent voice, and works well with the thoroughly winning Bleu as Bert. Davie also adds an air of substance to Winifred Banks that I’ve haven’t seen before, with a standout performance that adds depth and interest to her story. Joshi works well with Davie and with the also excellent Fantroy and Cytron. There are also memorable comic performances from Zoe Vonder Haar and Barrett Riggins as the Banks family’s household servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay, as well as Debby Lennon in a menacing and vocally impressive appearance as George’s imperious childhood nanny, Miss Andrew. Another especially memorable performance is that of Darlesia Cearcy as the Bird Woman, whose soaring voice and excellent harmonizing with De Waal makes “Feed the Birds” one of the true highlights of this production. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, lending strong support and contributing much energy to the production numbers, featuring spirited choreography by Patrick O’Neill.

This production looks great, as well, with a big, bold, colorful production featuring a versatile set by Paige Hathaway, detailed and whimsical costumes by Robin L. McGee, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, as well as eye-catching video design by Alex Basco Koch and spectacular flying effects by EFX. There was a bit of an problem with Lennon’s microphone in the performance I saw, but the issue was covered well, as Lennon was given a hand-held mic which added an amusing “evil lounge singer” vibe to her character that worked surprisingly well. The Muny orchestra is also in fine form, as led by music director Brad Haak, providing a full, rich sound to the well-known score.

This is probably the best stage version of Mary Poppins I have seen, with a lot of energy, musicality, and heart, and that little witty edge that gives it something extra. With memorable performances from De Waal. Bleu, and the rest of the cast, and dazzlingly vivid production values, this is a show that’s sure to please theatregoers of all ages. It’s a “Jolly Holiday”, indeed.

Jeanna De Waal, Corbin Bleu
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Mary Poppins in Forest Park until July 13, 2022

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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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