Michael L. Quintos
If you're a regional theater company attempting to mount a home-grown production of a grand, Broadway-sized stage musical centered around one of the most popular, iconic characters in literary and cinematic history, then it's probably a good idea to make sure your title character not only meets expectations but also helps lift the entire enterprise to vivid life.
Luckily for the talented, audacious folks behind the charming new regional production of the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh musical spectacular MARY POPPINS—currently playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through June 21—they found a lovely, practically perfect Poppins in Hart of Dixie's Brandi Burkhardt, who confidently channels the nanny we all wish we had as kids. Blessed with a lovely singing voice and a pitch-perfect demeanor that's at times bold, at times cheeky, and altogether beguiling, she does a wonderful job embodying a role that will no doubt draw unfair (but, alas, expected) comparisons to the Oscar-winning Musical Goddess that made the role famous in movie theaters and (later) living rooms across the globe.
Fear not, though, because as soon as Burkhardt (as the titular magically-inclined nanny) arrives in the Banks household located at Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, the audience—expecting perhaps a nostalgic trip to Julie Andrews land—is greeted to a Poppins that they will find likable and refreshing, yet still comfortably familiar. While, sure, there are microscopic glimpses of Dame Julie floating in the atmosphere, this Mary Poppins (the character) belongs solely to this MARY POPPINS (the stage show), and we're all the better for it.
But admirable as that feat is, it also helps a lot that this production itself—produced by McCoy-Rigby Entertainment under the buoyant direction of Glenn Casale—is also quite a delightful crowd-pleaser, filled with colorful first-rate visuals, spectacular dancing, festive songs, and an infectiously enthusiastic cast that tries its best to win over its audience. And, boy, they definitely do!
The super-friendly Jack-of-all-trades, Bert, out front as Mary's close pal (or perhaps more?), is played with terrific humor and winning aplomb by Leigh Wakeford (if you've never seen the stage musical before, you'll be completely pleased with his gravity-defying sequence that, trust me, you'll be cheering). As Jane and Michael Banks, the young naughty children that Mary has chosen to look after, Noa Solorio and Logan J. Watts (respectively) are both appealingly precocious in their roles. Their father, George Banks—a stern banker by trade who rules his home with a disciplinarian's hand—is played with gruff likability by Martin Kildare. And as his melancholy, often-neglected wife, Winnifred, Shannon Warne brings a quiet grace and empathetic vulnerability (and some great singing pipes) to the expanded role.
At the same time, supporting players Dino Nicandros (as comically bumbling houseboy Robertson Ay), Rachel Pfeifer Green (as the Banks' cook), Joël René (as Caribbean-flavored, spelling-happy shopkeeper Mrs. Corry), Helen Geller (as the Bird Woman of St. Paul's Cathedral), and Mary Gutzi (as the fearsome anti-Poppins nanny, Miss Andrew) all add great pep and personality to this magical show.
And as consistently expected in these big, Broadway-caliber La Mirada productions, the large, talent-bursting ensemble cast looks marvelous donning Janet Swenson's ornate costumes while enveloped in J Branson's exquisite, book illustrations-inspired scenic design and Jonathan Infante's projections. The company also sounds beautifully harmonious accompanied by the show's rousing orchestra that's under the rhythmic baton of musical director Dennis Castellano. Finally, the dazzling, brand new high-energy dance sequences created exclusively for this production come courtesy of the late Dan Mojica, who, sadly, passed away before seeing his awesome work performed to perfection for the show's opening (fittingly, his stunning choreography here was fondly remembered during the show's opening night intro).
As for the whole production itself, La Mirada should be very proud of their admirable, highly-entertaining locally-birthed endeavor. Based on PL Travers' fantastical London-based tales of the world's most magical nanny, the stage musical iteration of MARY POPPINS—conceived by Cameron Mackintosh and features a book by Julian Fellowes—is an exhilarating Disney-fied theatrical showpiece, that's greatly inspired by Disney's own beloved 1964 big screen adaptation while drawing added alternative story material from Travers' books themselves, perhaps as a move to make this property its own entity.
With that said, those few purists hoping for a scene-for-scene recreation of the movie may be a little disappointed with the differences implemented here (Admiral Boom only makes brief, dismissible cameos; Mrs. Banks is a lot more serious and isn't involved with the Suffragettes' movement; Uncle Albert and his laugh-induced ceiling tea party are gone; and the chalk-drawing sequence that leads to an "animated" horse race has also been excised). In their place, the musical adds a magical, statue-animating stroll through the park, a technicolor supercalifragilistic visit to a sweets shoppe, and, later, the arrival of "The Holy Terror"—the nanny from hell and the total opposite of Mary Poppins.
Fret not, though, because at its core, the lively spirit that many found so utterly enjoyable in the film still lingers in this stage iteration, particularly during the show's lively showstopper moments, of which there are many—including a full-out dance party that breaks out when the city's chimney sweeps do "Step In Time" over the rooftops of London.
Though many of the stories and situations will seem new to those only familiar with the film, the stage show does essentially follow a fairly similar narrative trajectory. Here, like in the movie, a magic-powered, summoned-from-the-heavens nanny named Mary Poppins swoops in (via wind-blown umbrella) to influence drastic, necessary changes within a divided, deeply fractured household. Dad works too hard and has become crabby and strict in the process. Mom feels ignored and thinks that she is a constant disappointment to her husband and children. The Banks kids, meanwhile, see no other recourse but to act out and be naughty in order to get their parents' attention (and, perhaps to stifle their own boredom, too). Though the journey may be different in the stage version, the same happily-ever-after resolution is definitely still in the cards (yay!).
But more importantly, in its smartest move of all, the stage version of MARY POPPINS revives the gloriously tuneful music of brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, the prolific, genius songwriting duo who crafted the classic songs featured in the original Disney film. Their memorable, iconic gems such as "A Spoonful of Sugar," "The Perfect Nanny," "(It's A) Jolly Holiday," "Feed The Birds," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Let's Go Fly A Kite," and, of course, the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee" are all engagingly incorporated here, weaved seamlessly alongside brand new, wonderfully Poppins-esque songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Yes, what's even more remarkable about the new musical compositions by Stiles and Drewe in this stage version is how well they blend in—or, sometimes, extend and elaborate—the Sherman Brothers' classic tunes from the film. "Practically Perfect," Mary's measuring tape-inspired introductory solo, genuinely sounds like a lost Sherman Brothers trunk song, yet still remains wholly original (and absolutely clever), as is the unabashedly hopeful "Anything Can Happen." And the duo's musical expansion of "Jolly Holiday" is just magnificently inspired.
Specifically, with this particular La Mirada production, I can honestly say that the show is already a vast improvement from earlier incarnations, for the simple fact that this regional rendering eschews that dreadfully odd sequence (featuring the song "Playing the Game") in which the children's nursery toys suddenly come to life (!) to exact karmic vengeance upon the Banks kids for their supposed mishandling and lack of care. Eeek!
Well, by deleting that horrific section, La Mirada has just saved a lot of kids (and a few of us adults) in the audience from having to deal with unwanted nightmares. Though removing that sequence certainly helps zip the show along in its merry (or Mary) way, the musical does still feel a bit disjointed in some parts.
And therein lies the only minor flaw that still sticks out for me with both this and previous versions of the musical: its rather choppy, episodic nature—as if the show is just a conveyor belt of disparate individual vignettes one right after another... perhaps purposely constructed this way in order to necessitate a steady, albeit extremely enjoyable stream of production numbers. There's certainly nothing wrong with that; other musicals, actually, do a much worse job executing it. At least, with La Mirada's delightfully charming MARY POPPINS, the enjoyment comes early and continues often. Its ultimate aim is to be an entertaining crowd-pleaser... and that is certainly something this show achieves.
Originally published on BroadwayWorld. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' regional production of MARY POPPINS - THE BROADWAY MUSICAL by Michael Lamont.
Performances of MARY POPPINS at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in the city of La Mirada, CA continues through Sunday, June 21, 2015. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard. Parking is Free.
For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310