Thursday 14 November 2013

Corks popping for ACT's Mary Poppins

A quick look back : Maybe it's time to admit that the 1964 Disney movie version that made Julie Andrews a star had little in the way of character dynamics for either Andrews or the indefatigable Dick Van Dyke. And it was that absence of dynamic, even more than the Disney animations, that likely caused author P. L. Travers to sob at the end of the movie's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. In retrospect, maybe Andrews should have been given a wee bit of brimstone & treacle mouthwash to make her somewhat more nanny-ish and less the goddess-fairy that Walt had her be. 

Fast-forward to 2013 and ACT's stage-musical re-mount of the Travers stories. In this version Mary P. is less a toothy-white magical charmstress, slightly edgier -- not quite a "pitbull with lipstick" -- but closer, if only a couple of centimetres. And one can't help but think that the waspish and acerbic Travers, who died at age 96 in 1996 still not suffering fools gladly, would appreciate the changes from the movie version that she abhorred (though it made her a multi-millionaire as she received 5% of the movie's gross receipts, currently 25th all-time highest at more than $635M).

First impression : Many folks who fondly remember Disney's MP film recall its magic turns -- the legerdemain, the illusion, the trickery pulled off by Mary and Bert. Such stuff, though still there, is not the source of magic in the current ACT production. No, the magic witnessed opening night is in the fact of the hand-picked cast of actors and performers selected by Director Bill Millerd and choreographer extraordinaire Valerie Easton. As individuals and a troupe they explode off the Stanley Theatre stage with unmatchable vigour, enthusiasm and just plain fun. One elderly couple of theatre veterans remarked on their way out : "I enjoyed every single bit of this play from start to finish!"  
-and- "I honestly think this is the best stage play I've ever seen in Vancouver." For song-&-dance enthusiasts to disagree with those sentiments would be, I think, but to quibble.

Plot overview : This may sound cynical, but the script of MP is really just a long-drawn-out extension of the Harry Chapin ballad about a dad being a bad dad because he's always too busy for his family : Chapin's Cat's In The Cradle still gets air play ad nauseam on soft-favourites radio channels. Set in Victorian England, dad George Banks (Warren Kimmel) is a banker -- an overworked and stressed one at that. His wife Winifred (Caitriona Murphy) is a gentry-wannabe trying to manage the household with its two kids, maid/cook, and inept butler. As befits gentry-wannabe's, the raising of the children is outsourced to a nanny. Rather to a half-dozen of them in the past year the kids are so bratty, scheming and seemingly uncontrollable. The play opens with the most recent nanny fleeing #17 Cherry Tree Lane. The kids draw up their ideal nanny mock-ad : she must 

Take us on outings, give us treats
Sing songs, bring sweets
Never be cross or cruel, never give us castor oil or gruel
Love us as a son and daughter

Dad George blows a gasket, tears up their clever wish list and whistles it into the fireplace. Karma clicks in. Who should appear with a Poof! but Mary Poppins (Sara-Jeanne Hosie). Dad is all aflutter. He wants precision, order, efficiency in his domain, but complains "We're living in a mad house!" Mary marches the kids upstairs with her customary refrain of "Spit spot!" and her two-part reign with the kids begins : says son Michael (Graham Verchere), "We best keep any eye on this one, she's tricky...!" He would be just young and wise enough to get his own double entendre there.

WYSIWYG : The current stage play is musical comedy that is a pastiche of Travers' Mary Poppins books (she wrote eight of them between the mid-30's and the late-80's), the Disney script, the original Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman songs, and an updated book by Downton Abbey's creator Julian Fellowes with new songs and additional music and lyrics by Englishmen George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Hilarious, I found, that Travers had a provision in her will that nobody who worked on the Disney film could be a part of producer Cameron Mackintosh's proposed live theatre mount (he of "Cats", "Les Miserables", "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" stage-play fame). Contributors all had to be English, no Yanks allowed, thanks. Under Walt they had all conspired to sentimentalize her Mary Poppins character, sweetened her beyond recognition, and wrote a simple-minded cotton-candy version that she thought was cynical in the doing. In the introduction to a HarperCollins re-issue of the original Travers book from 1934, Mackintosh declared : "Mary Poppins is, and always will be, unique : stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable." Travers felt too much of the "stern" and "businesslike" were lost in the Disney/Sherman movie version, apparently.

Character take : Five characters, particularly, deserve individual shout-outs for their work in this production. 

As Mary, Sara-Jeanne Hosie is probably as close to perfection as possible. Her set jaw, her disapproving scowl when the kids or parents misbehave (the "stern" and "businesslike" stuff) are counterbalanced by her whimsy when it's time to fun -- terrific comic turns each one. Her singing voice is melodic and even powerful at times, though the mezzo soprano range suits her more than the upper octive soprano stuff. Marvelously crisp execution of Director Millerd's scene blocking and Easton's dance footwork, too. Mesmerizing to watch from moment-one to moment-end.

As Bert, Scott Walters warrants an extra Bravo! or two from me because he discharged forever the memory of Mr. Van Dyke's one-dimensional face-cracking smileiferous performance in the Disney movie. Walters was wondrously engaged in his role, displaying dynamic and clever facial shifts and nuances to suit every line, every step-ball-change dance step and kick-up. 

Susan Anderson as Mrs. Brill and the Bird Woman in the park huckstering two-pence breadcrumb bags was non-pareil in execution. Her comic timing of panic ! disapproval ! and sheer aghastness ! at the Banks' "mad house" was split-second "Spit spot!" each line, each moment. Bird Woman was pure zen.

As Michael Banks, Grade 6 student Graham Verchere bloody well nearly aces his performance as a Brit-kid snot with lots of love in his heart to match his mischievous and playful soul. His sustained British accent -- assuming he isn't British-born -- was astonishing. 

Grade 7 student Kassia Danielle Malmquist played Michael's sister Jane, and she, too stayed 100% in character with charm and typical 13-year-old older sister flippancy and toy-tossing snitteries. 

Character take, Part 2 : It's impossible, really, to review this play without extending Huzzah's to all the actors and performers for their contributions. Mom Winifred by Caitriona Murphy was wholly convincing as a bemused and slightly estranged wife. Katey Wright pulls off replacement-nanny -- Dad's childhood nanny Miss Andrew ("The Holy Terror") -- with robust dislikability. Warren Kimmel as the "Harry Chapin dad" struck terror in my heart when he exploded. Well done indeed. (His "conversion" to huggy-dad -- like the lightning that struck Saul on the road to Damascus -- was perhaps too quick to convince, but that's a script problem, not Kimmel's.) Then there's the twelve performers in the song-&-dance Ensemble. To a person they were just step-perfect from my up-close-&-personal perspective in Row 2.

Production values :  Choreographer Valerie Easton -- current Artistic Director of Royal City Musical Theatre -- is to this viewer's eye simply brilliant ! each and every time I see her work. Her staging of "Step In Time" was so spot-on with all the chimneysweeps in taps and everyone gamboling at breakneck speed across the entire proscenium at the Stanley that I'd go to the show a second time for that number alone. Same with the familiar "Supercalifragilistic..." dance number, "Jolly Holiday", oh hell's bells, every one of them.

Costume Designer Sheila White's togs for everyone were rich, even when they were the streetrags of the chimney sweeps. Better costumes for the period-timing would not be imaginable. The colour interjections of reds in the park dance scene were a touch.

Set Designer Alison Green's sets all worked great both visually and "choreographically". With its two storeys, the Cherry Tree Lane home played effectively by exploiting both levels. The sight-gag of Mary pulling a coat-tree, floor lamp and wall mirror out of her kit-bag upon arrival was a crowd-pleaser. For their part, all the drop-screens for the park scenes were cleverly wrought and painted -- aided and abetted by veteran Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe's shadowy birds and raindrops flashing about quite merrily. 

Who gonna like : I mentioned to my seat-neighbour that personally I tend to prefer the kinds of scripts most recently reviewed by BLR, the more intimate stuff of Venus In Fur, Armstrong's War, Relatively Speaking. But, I confessed, as big-stage song-&-dance entertainment with wonderful music from the Bruce Kellett orchestra behind, this Mary Poppins is finger-snappin' and heart-strings-pulling stuff tailor-made for the winter holiday season. It's the one time of year that a wee dose of sentimentality about "the goodness that lurks in people's troubled hearts" is okay already. For choreography, visuals and delightful tunes in a package, this one's a Go! for sure. 


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