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Posts Tagged ‘variety children’s theatre’

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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The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
Adapted by Frank Gabrielson with music of the MGM motion pictures score by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, background music by Herbert Stothart
Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter
Variety Children’s Theatre
October 19, 2017

The Wizard of Oz is a classic tale about dreams, home, and family. Adaptations–and especially those based on the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland–have been staged in various places around the world for decades. It’s a very popular show, especially for family audiences. It’s an ideal selection for Variety Children’s Theatre, with its huge casts of adults and children, featuring director and choreographer Lara Teeter’s inventive staging and excellent opportunities for the child performers especially, making for an entertaining and vibrant show that’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Variety Children’s Theatre is now in its ninth year, producing shows in association with Variety the Children’s Charity, which works with children with special needs. The shows allow the Variety kids the opportunity to participate in a full-scale production either on stage or behind the scenes, along with more local children and professional actors and crew. The Wizard of Oz is the first Variety show I’ve seen, although I had heard great things about their productions in the past. Overall, this is an impressive production, utilizing the space at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center with a great deal of energy and creativity.

It’s the Wizard of Oz. It’s so well known that I don’t think I really need to summarize the plot. It’s a beloved classic, but it’s one that’s been done so many times that it can get to the point where it doesn’t seem like anything new can be done with it. This production proves that the show can be performed as written, but with still finding new and fresh approaches to the staging and characterization. I’m usually impressed when a production casts a Dorothy who doesn’t try to sound like Judy Garland, and this production does that well with the excellent Elizabeth Teeter, but it goes even further, with a characterization of the Wicked Witch of the West (Allison Newman) that is truly novel, as far as I’ve seen. The rest of the familiar characters are all here–Aunt Em (Laurie McConnell), Uncle Henry (Rich Pisarkiewicz), the Scarecrow (Drew Humphrey), Tin Man (Martin Fox), and Cowardly Lion (Patrick Blindauer), as well as Glinda (Julie Tabash Kelsheimer), the Wizard himself (Alan Knoll) and, of course, Toto (Nessa). The story is the usual story, but what’s most notable here is the inventive staging, including excellent flying effects and the excellent utilization of the adult and children’s ensembles.

The production values are excellent, from Dunsi Dai’s colorful, versatile set that relies a lot on movable set pieces, to John Wylie’s dazzling lighting, to the well-suited costumes by Robert Fletcher and Kansas City Costume. The flying effects, from Flying by Foy, are among the most impressive I’ve seen in a St. Louis production, as various characters and set pieces “fly” with seeming effortlessness. The staging is especially strong as well, particularly in the ensemble numbers which provide excellent moments for the child performers, especially in Munchkinland, and for the adult ensemble in the Emerald City sequences and in the Witch’s castle. Teeter’s energetic choreography is also a highlight, from the various solos for the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, to the spectacular “Jitterbug” sequence. Teeter is especially adept at incorporating all the cast members into the production numbers in inventive ways.

There’s a great cast here, from the earnest, strong-voiced Elizabeth Teeter as Dorothy to Newman’s truly hilarious,  interpretation of the Wicked Witch. She’s younger, and kind of whiny, spoiled and entitled. I’ve never seen the Witch played that way before, but here it works, and Newman does a good job of being funny and menacing at turns. There are also winning performances from the scene-stealing Blindauer as the Lion and as Kansas farmhand Zeke; the flexible Humphrey as the Scarecrow and farmhand Hunk; and from Fox as the amiable Tin Man and farmhand Hickory. Pisarkiewicz is also impressive as Uncle Henry and especially as the Emerald City guard, and McConnell turns in a solid performance as Aunt Em. Knoll, as the Wizard and as Professor Marvel in the Kansas scenes, is also in good form, and there’s an excellent canine performance from Nessa as Toto. The children’s ensemble is excellent, as well, with notable performances from Nick George as the Mayor of Munchkinland and Charlie Mathis as the Munchkin Coroner. The adult ensemble features excellent performances from all, and especially Will Bonfiglio, Nathaniel Hirst, Mitchell Holsclaw, and Caleb Long as the Apple Trees. Everyone does a great job, though, from the Munchkins to the Winkies to the Flying Monkeys and more.

I’m glad I was able to see this performance. It’s a huge production, with a huge cast, and as is fitting for The Wizard of Oz, a lot of heart, brains, and courage. This is a thoroughly entertaining show, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Variety Children’s Theatre will present in the future.

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