[Click Any Photo to Enlarge]
It was the opening week for the new Theatre Under the Stars production of the ever-popular Broadway musical, MARY POPPINS. Though it was a school night, there was an almost carnival-like atmosphere with the many nicely dressed youngsters in the audience, out for a great adventure with Mom and Dad, and perhaps a first experience of live theatre.
They would not be disappointed as the wondrous Mary Poppins world (familiar to many from the Disney 2004 film of the same name, and the P.L. Travers series of children’s Poppins books on which it was based) suddenly came magically to life on the stage before them. Much of that magic would spring from the marvelous performance of Christina DeCicco in the title role. One needs only to hear a few notes from her splendid voice in familiar tunes like, “Jolly Holiday,” and “Spoonful of Sugar,” to readily understand how she was chosen to star in the challenging role of Eva Peron (opposite Ricky Martin) in the Broadway production of EVITA. Hers is truly a voice for the Broadway stage.
In an age when so many productions try to get by with recorded soundtracks, here it is especially wonderful to have a fine orchestra in the pit under the able direction of Music Director/Conductor, Jeff Rizzo. With original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman, the show sports a book by Julian Fellowes (Think “Downton Abbey,” folks). There are also new songs and additional music & lyrics from George Stiles & Anthony Drewe.
The attractive set designs of Timothy R. Mackabee glide smoothly in and out of scenes as needed, while the charming costumes of George T. Mitchell combine beautifully with the solid direction and choreography of Linda Goodrich, to smoothly move the action between an elegant Victorian home, the gay and colorful London parks, and the rooftop world of the city’s chimney sweeps. The musical’s simple and pleasing plot revolves around the London lives of the upper-class family of stern banker, George Banks (Drew McVety), his wife, Winifred (lovely Courtney Markowitz), and their two very cute but mischievous children, Jane (velvet-voiced, Kelly Lomonte) and Michael (a spry and winning performance from Sean Graul). At their lovely home, the nannies for these naughty children come and go quite quickly, and household servants like the cook, Mrs. Brill (a feisty Barbara Marineau) and Robertson, the handyman (Marco Camacho), are easily exasperated by the hectic goings on in what they call “the madhouse” at #17 Cherry Tree Lane. George is oh-so-serious and aloof from the children, always seeking “precision and order.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Banks tries to make sense of it all as Miss Markowitz lends her lovely and lilting soprano voice to songs like, “Being Mrs. Banks,” “Cherry Tree Lane,” and “Let’s Hope She Will Stay.” The latter song, joined by Mr. Banks and the children, expresses the family’s collective hope that the enigmatic, irrepressible and newly arrived nanny, Mary Poppins, will not run off like those that came before her.
A joyful thread that weaves its way through this popular tale is the merry world of the London chimney sweeps, led here by the joyful performance of Danny Gardner in the role of Bert. His cheerful opening number with the infectious “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” delightfully sets the stage for much of the fun to follow. The prancing joys of the “Jolly Holiday” song alluded to in my title are a perfect example of the show’s lively and sensational choreography, Technicolor explosion of gorgeous costumes, and the winning choral support of the fine ensemble. Magical touches abound as statues in the park come suddenly to life while Mary teaches the jaded youngsters to appreciate the wonders around them.
Even an old Bird Woman in the park (a second role here for Barbara Marineau) has life lessons for the children as she encourages a caring nature with Marineau’s powerful performance of the tender song, “Feed the Birds.” Then it’s on to the delicious and witty nonsense at Mrs. Corry’s mysterious store in the park where one can actually buy individual words like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
That popular song is super indeed as performed here by this energetic and talented cast with unusual arm-waving choreography that must have taken the dancers many hours to master. And speaking of super numbers, the beautifully staged, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” is a colorful and eye-popping sensation that children and grownups will love. In that song Mr. Gardner proves he is every inch the heir to Dick Van Dyke’s memorable performance as Bert in the classic Disney film.
When Mary becomes unhappy with Jane and Michael’s careless treatment of their toys, youngsters in the audience who are fans of stuffed animals and dolls will not want to miss the “Playing the Game” number that has them all come magically to life in protest. The disenchanted Mary then leaves for a time, and the fearsome nanny, Miss Andrew (Jane Blass), arrives to replace her and whip the children into shape by feeding them a horrible tonic of “Brimstone and Treacle” during her frightening song. More trouble looms when apparently bad loan decisions at the bank seem to put Mr. Banks position there at risk. Without giving away too much of the expected happy ending to come, I will highly recommend the second act’s beautifully choreographed, “Step in Time,” number from the chimney sweeps. (See photo at top). It stands as a perfect symbol of this fun-filled show, which, I might add, ends with the same remarkable last-minute surprise that I saw on Broadway when the show opened there years ago. Perhaps the full cast finale sums it up best: “Anything Can Happen.” Go, enjoy, and be sure to take the kids along to celebrate Spring Break.
MARY POPPINS continues through March 20 that Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances on Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm, and a final performance next Sunday evening at 7:30 pm. For tickets visit the website at www.TUTS.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).