Wednesday 10 December 2014

Mary Poppins is spit-spot fun !

Text check  : Mary Poppins was produced by ACT for its 2013 season. It has been re-mounted for the 2014 holiday season with the same principal actors and production team who thrilled the community with their collaboration a year back. As well as many of the same folks in the dance and music ensembles. Then -- as a slip of bad luck would have it -- a sprained foot has prevented my attending opening night tonight, December 10th. Thus the decision taken to repeat and update what I wrote about MP a year back. I trust what follows will provide readers both some of the play's interesting historical context and some foretaste about this year's re-mount.

Disney torments Mary's creator :  The 1964 Disney movie version that made Julie Andrews a star had little in the way of character dynamics. Neither Andrews nor the indefatigable Dick Van Dyke was three dimensional. Just celluloid (albeit charming) figurines. And it was their one-dimensional characters that perhaps caused Aussie author P. L. Travers to sob at the end of the movie's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Or her pique at not having been invited by Disney to the movie's opening due to their numerous ego-clashes during its production. More those reasons for her tears than Disney's cartoony bits, I reckon. Andrews needed a dose of no-nonsense brimstone in her soul and more acid on her tongue to make her a proper nanny, Travers felt. Still, if Walt's goddess-fairy Andrews was unreal, the irrepressible and constant Van Dyke grinnery was downright annoying to her.

Fast-forward to ACT's stage-musical version of the Travers stories. Mary P. is no longer a toothy-white charmstress. Slightly edgier -- not quite a "pitbull with lipstick" -- but closer to "real" if only a centimetre or two. The waspish and acerbic Travers -- who died at age 96 in 1996 still not suffering fools gladly -- would likely have appreciated the changes from the movie parts that made her cringe so. (Fact is, however, Walt's celluloid characters made Travers and her estate multi-millionaires with 5% of the movie's gross receipts hers for the taking. Currently MP is 23rd on one all-time highest-USA-earnings list, having pulled in over $500M and counting. Interestingly, MP doesn't appear to crack any of the "Top 100" international movie charts.)

First impressions : 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 primary source of magic in the ACT production. No, it's in the fact of the hand-picked cast of actors and performers selected by Director Bill Millerd and choreographer extraordinaire Valerie Easton. They all explode off the Stanley Theatre stage with unmatchable vigour, enthusiasm and antics that are just plain fun. What better comments than these overheard last year from an elderly couple on their way out : "I enjoyed every single bit of this play from start to finish!" said one, while the other remarked : "I honestly think this is the best stage play I've ever seen in Vancouver." 

Story -- a quicky re-visit : Set in Victorian England instead of Travers' more familiar outback in Oz, dad George Banks (Warren Kimmel) is a banker -- an overworked and stressed-out 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. The raising of the children is outsourced to a nanny. Rather to a half-dozen nannies in the past year. All of them have quit because the kids are so bratty, scheming and incorrigible it seems.

The play kicks off with the most recent nanny fleeing #17 Cherry Tree Lane like it's a zoo with lions and tigers on the loose. In her dust the kids draw up an "ideal nanny" newspaper advertisement. 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 wee gasket, tears up their clever wish-list and whistles it right smartly 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 that he declares is a mad house. Mary promptly marches the kids upstairs with her customary refrain "Spit spot!" Her two-part reign with the kids begins as son Michael (Graham Verchere) notes wryly : "We best keep an eye on this one, she's tricky...!" Michael would be just young and wise enough to realize the double-entendre there.

Not from one book alone : The current stage play is a comic musical pastiche of some eight Mary Poppins books and stories Travers wrote between the mid-30's and the late-80's in addition to the Disney film script and the original Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman songs. There's an updated book by Downton Abbey's creator Julian Fellowes plus new songs and additional music and lyrics supplied 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 version (his stage pedigree including Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon.) Contributors all had to be English, no Yanks allowed, thanks, Travers insisted. 

Why? Because under Walt -- b.t.w. unlike the rest of the world, Travers refused to call him by his first name -- Travers felt the Americans had all conspired to sentimentalize her cherished pet character, sweeten Mary beyond Travers' recognition. Theirs was a simple-minded cotton-candy version that she thought was cynical -- all done to make money. Her preferred Mary : In the introduction to a Harper Collins re-issue of the original Travers book from 1934 some years back, stage maven 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 traits were flat-out lost in the Disney flick. Truth-&-accuracy sacrificed for mammon.

Character take redux : Five characters who reprise their 2013 roles will no doubt attract individual shout-outs again in 2014, can't imagine otherwise. 

Here was my cut at it a year back :

"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 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 because he discharges forever the memory of Dick Van Dyke's always-smiley performance in the Disney movie. Walters wondrously engages his role, displaying dynamic and clever facial shifts and nuances to suit every line, every 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. The comic timing of her panic! disapproval! and sheer aghastness! at the Banks' "mad house" was split-second each line, each moment. As Bird Woman her turn was a pure moment of zen.

As Michael Banks, (now-Grade 7) 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.

(Now-Grade 8) student Kassia Danielle Malmquist stayed 100% in character with charm and typical older-teen-sister flippancy and toy-tossing snitteries."

Character take, Part 2 : It was impossible a year back 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 as the replacement nanny -- Dad's childhood nanny "The Holy Terror" Miss Andrew -- betrayed robust dislikability. Warren Kimmel struck terror in viewers' hearts when he exploded. His "conversion" to huggy-dad was perhaps too quick to convince, but that's a script problem, not Kimmel's as actor. The 2013 song-&-dance ensemble to a person were step-perfect from my Row 2 perspective then. Many of them are back on the boards for this year's re-make.

Production values : Choreographer Valerie Easton is the well-known Artistic Director of Royal City Musical Theatre. She is to this viewer's eye simply brilliant! each and every time I see her work. Her staging of "Step In Time" in 2013 had all the chimneysweeps in taps and everyone gamboling at breakneck speed across the entire proscenium at the Stanley. I said then 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 'sweeps. Better costumes for the period would not be imaginable. The colour interjections in the park dance scene were a clever touch.

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

Who gonna like : As big-stage song-&-dance entertainment with wonderful music from the Bruce Kellett orchestra behind again this year, Mary Poppins is delightful finger-snappin' and heart-strings-pulling stuff tailor-made for our Pineapple Express late-fall monsoons. A wee dose of sentimentality about the goodness that swells in people's hearts is okay already. On occasion. When done just right. For choreography, visuals and delightful tunes in a package, Mary Poppins is a Go! for sure.

Particulars : Until January 4, 2015 at ACT's Granville Street mainstage Stanley Theatre. Hit up for showtimes, tickets and available seats.

The show : A musical based on the stories of P. J. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Stage-play book by Julian Fellowes. New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Co-creator Cameron Mackintosh.

Production team : Director Bill Millerd.  Musical Director \ Keyboard Bruce Kellett.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe. Costume Designer Sheila White.  Sound Designer Andy Horka. Original Sound Designer Andrew Tugwell.  Projection Designer Craig Alfredson.  Magic Consultant Chris Stolz.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Anne Taylor.  Apprentice Stage Manager Michelle Harrison.  Assistant to the Choreographer Robert Allan.

Featured actors : Sara-Jeanne Hosie, Mary Poppins.  Susan Anderson, Mrs. Brill \ Bird Woman.  Warren Kimmel, George Banks.  Kassia Danielle Malmquist, Jane Banks.  Caitriona Murphy, Winifred Banks.  Graham Verchere, Michael Banks. Scott Walker, Bert.  Katey Wright, Miss Andrew \ Mrs. Corry.

Supported by : Robert Allan, Poseiden \ Ensemble.  Scott Augustine, Neleus \ Ensemble.  Darren Burkett, Sweep \ Ensemble.  Bobby Callahan, Sweep \ Von Hussler  Ensemble. Kayla James, Annie \ Ensemble.  Alissa Keogh, Sweep \ Ensemble.  Anna Kuman, Katie Nanna \ Ensemble.  Brianne Loop, Fanny \ Ensemble.  Jennifer Neumann, Miss Lark \ Ensemble. Michael Querin, Admiral Boom \ Ensemble.  Shane Snow, Robertson Ay \ Ensemble.  Daniel James White, Policeman \ Ensemble. 

The Orchestra : Ken Cormier, Keyboard. Graham Boyle, Percussion. Henry Christian, Trumpet. Angus Kellett, Keyboard. Sue Round, Cello.


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