Friday, March 22, 2013
Theater review: Mary Poppins is magical and practically perfect
Madeline Trumble as Mary Poppins was picture perfect for the role, but Con O’Shea-Creal as Bert stole the show.
DALLAS Mary Poppins. That name is one that immediately evokes an image embedded deep in our cultural psyche. For most of us, that image is rooted in the 1964 classic Disney movie full of music, song, imagination, and always one more spoonful of sugar. For the next two weeks the Dallas Summer Musicals will play host to a slightly different Mary Poppins.
The musical contains many of the songs and memories we associate with the movie, but it is closer to the stories written by P.L. Travers. So be prepared for a slightly darker, yet just as magical nanny who is practically perfect in every way! With this in mind, it may be a good idea to prepare any younger audience members to expect a story a little different than the one they know — but what a story it will be!
The stage version of this tale had the difficult task of living up to the iconic legacy of the magic of Mary Poppins. I was immediately impressed in the first second of the show by the set and lighting design. Bert, played by University of Oklahoma graduate Con O’Shea-Creal, opens up the show leading us to a black and white outline of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Appropriately for a story based on a series of children’s books, the outline moves forward, opening like a pop-up book to reveal the interior of the home where we meet the Banks family for the first time.
Throughout the entire show, I was continually impressed by the stage and set management. The transitions from one scene to the next were done seamlessly and with a grace that seemed … well, magical!
The magic continued as the performers took the stage and began the narrative almost entirely in song. Right off the bat George Banks, played by Chris Hoch, set the standard by being the very epitome of the disciplined banker who views his family as obligation and not joy. With Mrs. Brill (Emily Cramer) and Robertson Ay (Blake Segal) playing the comic relief to Hoch’s straight man, laugher was quickly heard throughout the theater.
A word must be said about the precocious Banks children. You never know what you’re going to get when you have a show requiring young talent. Mary Poppins is a production full of demanding dance sequences, song, and dynamic range. It takes a mature and well-rounded performer to be able to check off all these boxes. Madison Mullahey as Jane and Eli Tokash as Michael impressed me throughout the evening. They held their own during some very complicated and fast-paced choreography. They were consistently in character and both had amazing voices! Even when singing along with an adult, both children could be clearly heard. I suspect we will see and hear great things from these two talented young people in the years to come. That said, Mullahey’s accent was inconsistent throughout the performance. As a result, much of her dialogue was lost due to rapid speech and odd phrasing.
Madeline Trumble as Mary Poppins was picture perfect for the role. From her seemingly miraculous appearance in the Banks home to her magical departure at the show’s end, Trumble was the impeccable representation of Mary Poppins. Every pose, movement, and gesture was picture perfect. One of the most magical moments in the classic movie involved the seemingly bottomless carpetbag Mary Poppins brought into the Banks home. The stage production followed that pattern with great success. During “Practically Perfect,” one of the new songs written by Stiles and Drewe for this production, Trumble miraculously pulled out item after item from her magical bag, much to the delight of the Banks children and the attentive audience.
Another exemplary performance came from Kerry Conte as Winifred Banks. Conte’s voice was the best of the evening. During Mrs. Banks” in the first act, and reprised in the second, Conte demonstrated great power and emotion in her vocal delivery. I only wish that there were more opportunities for Conte to show off her talent in this production.
There are a handful of songs that once heard will echo about in your head for weeks to come. “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and “Step in Time” are among those. I am willing to bet, as a result of reading that sentence, that many of you have some of them in your head even now! The company of this tour performed all of these numbers with excellence. I guarantee you will be humming “Chim Chim Cher-ee” under your breath as you head out to intermission. But the songs themselves are only a part of the magic.
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” proved to be one of the highlights of the evening. The entire cast is on stage for an explosion of color and dance unlike anything you’ve likely seen on a stage before. Again, the lighting and set design were simply superb — a kaleidoscope of Technicolor magic that you wouldn’t think possible on a stage burst into life when Mary Poppins took you for a stroll in the park.
One scene in the midst of all of this excellence seemed strangely out of place. Toward the end of Act One, Mary Poppins teaches the children a lesson about how to treat their toys (and others) in a new song entitled “Playing the Game.” In this song the toys grow to life size and sing about the abuse they’ve suffered at the neglectful hands of the children. This scene was dark and downright creepy. To complicate matters, a technical problem robbed Jordan Grubb, playing Valentine, one of the toys, of his solos. His microphone was not functioning so his lines were lost in mystery. This only served to make an already confusing sequence seem that much more surreal.
Thankfully, after the intermission, excellence returned with another new song focusing on the scariest nanny in all of history. Miss Andrew, played by Karen Murphy, introduced the children to the horrors of “Brimstone and Treacle” as a disciplinary tool. Murphy was delightful in her role as the nanny we were all meant to hate. Her over-the-top militancy was done to comic perfection until she was handily removed from the picture by the intercession of the returning Mary Poppins. Murphy, who also played the Bird Woman for “Feed the Birds” was clearly one of the anchors of the company.
The night was full of amazing musical numbers. But none could hold a handle to Bert and his fellow chimney sweeps during “Step in Time.” Simply amazing and must be seen to be believed. Tap dancing, a la Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, is seldom seen anymore on the stage.
O’Shea-Creal and his fellow hoofers brought it back and they did so with style! I loved every moment of this high-paced number. And without giving away one of the best surprises of the evening, let it suffice to say that he really knows how to dance to new heights. You could hear the collective gasp of the audience when he showed us all what it means to Step in Time.
Hands down, O’Shea-Creal was the star of the night. As our guide, narrator, and Mary’s constant support, O’Shea-Creal was perfect. He embodied his role, and loved every moment of it. And how could he not? When you are introducing the world to a figure as magical and lovely as Mary Poppins, joy would have to be essential to whom you are!
Come see Mary Poppins before it is too late. You won’t regret it. This is a musical that lives up to the reputation of its namesake — practically perfect in every way.
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