Thursday 8 December 2016

Poppins is peppery salty sugary seasonal stuff

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Three years before her death in 1996, British producer Cameron Mackintosh (Phantom of the Opera) had to talk P.L. Travers into the rights to do a "rescue script". To rescue the characters of Mary Poppins from Walt Disney's fantasyland film version. Apprently Dick Van Dyke drove Travers to absolute distraction he was so bubble-gummy. And Julie Andrews? Not in the least the "plain, vain and incorruptible" Poppins from Travers' semi-autobiographical UK books. Uncle Walt made her as sweet and loveable as she would be again the next year in both My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music

Travers was so hostile to Disney's artistic team for MP she didn't even get an invite to the film's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood in August of '64. Wiki rightly identifies the movie an "American musical phantasy comedy". Travers left the Grauman in tears. At age 93 she finally agreed to grant Mackintosh script access rights, but on one condition : no Americans or Disney alumnae to be involved in its makeover!

How it all got put together :  The project languished. Because Mackintosh knew there'd be no sense in trying to deny stage patrons some of the world's best known sing-along-songs such as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" or "Chim Chim Cher-ee" or "A Spoonful of Sugar". So he just sat on it. After Travers' passing, Mackintosh engaged Julian Fellowes (later of Downton Abbey fame) to re-do the Disney book. He then rang up British duo Stiles and Drewe to play around with the original tunes plus add one or two of their own, the most notable their anthem "Anything Can Happen". [The song reflects what Jr. Banks, son Michael (Glen Gordon), says about his favourite nanny : "Mary always tells us anything is possible if we could only get out of our own way."]

In this 3rd re-mount of Poppins in three years, Director Bill Millerd knew better than to start completely afresh given the mountain of good press ACT garnered before. Fully two-thirds of the original team are back : a whole swack of the same actors, ensemble, orchestra and production crew. Throw in a few newbies and this year's Poppins once more pops a cork with bubbly joyous escapist froth just right for The Season.

Understudy in the part from the previous shows Kayla James is this year's Mary.  A few years back Harper Collins did a re-issue of the original 1934 Travers book, one of eight Travers would write over the next 50 years -- into her late 80's -- always distilling and refining her character Miss P.  In that re-issue Mackintosh wrote the introduction. "Mary Poppins," he said, "is, and always will be, unique : stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable." Ms. James proves the truth of his descriptor in each pirouette, each hand gesture, each smile and knowing look. 

What the show brings to the stage :  The 40-odd folk who comprise the acting troupe, production team and musicians are a true ensemble fantastique. And the bottom line for Poppins is as healthy & robust as it is because each of the show's individual contributors bequest way more than 100% of what they are asked to give. 

First observation of note is ACT's complete engagement of the entire Stanley stage including the north and south wings. Alison Green's set design is, once more, a mix of whimsy, function and resourcefulness blending creative scenes of home and park and London's chimney'd rooftops.

Craig Alfredson's projections -- most notably the birds and the rain and the stars -- criss-crossed Green's scrims artfully. And yet those two individual's efforts would not have worked as well as they did without Sheila White's assembly of costumes for the myriad characters the Ensemble and actors portray. A richer display of period threads -- these representing Victoria's England -- I have never seen on a Vancouver stage.

But what are costumes without talented bodies executing inventive and crackerjack stage work underneath? It is here that Choreographer Valerie Easton gives Vancouver entertainment value equal to and better than what Big City fans quite take for granted back East. Four numbers jump out with their dance precision that quite astonish : Jolly Holiday, A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercal, and Step in Time, the magical tap-dance by the chimneysweeps. My oh my such creativity both in conception and on the boards.

Acting pin-spots : Aside from Kayla James' terrific Mary turn-out as noted above, 3rd-time-around Bert by Scott Walters proves even vintage single-malt can improve with further age. His character is a charm of emotional breadth, wit, and pure comedy. The two principals are equal champions in this show.

MP veteran Bobby Callahan plays the character Robertson Ay -- butler, squire, gofetchit -- with a zing of slapstick spontaneity that stole the audience's heart. Some of the funniest slapschtick I've ever witnessed in Vancouver, quite frankly.

And no need to change what I wrote about her in 2013 : "Susan Anderson as Mrs. Brill [the Banks' housekeeper] 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' madhouse was split-second each line, each moment. As Bird Woman her turn was pure zen."

Who gonna like :  To this eye, Mary Poppins stands a likelihood of becoming ACT's Christmastime ace-in-the-hole for local audiences. Many have become jaundiced about the commercialism and faux-religiosity connected with The Season. This is Singing' In The Rain style stuff, neither Santaland nor Bethlehem nor Jerusalem. The fun is seeing the mix of talents -- acting and production and music -- that make this a night out at the theatre that will grab you by the heart and make you sing your way home.

Particulars : On thru January 1st at ACT's Stanley stage, Granville @ 11th. Week-nights @ 7:30, Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission. Tickets $29 and up by phone to ACBO @ 604.687.1644 or by visiting ACT on-line @ Derived from the Walt Disney film and Cameron Mackintosh production. Based on the stories / novels of Pamela Lyndon Travers. Original music & lyrics by Richard & Robert Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes.  Additional music & lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe.
Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Co-Mjusical Directors Ken Cormier & Bruce Kellett.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Costume Designer Sheila White.  Assistant Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Sound Designer Chris Daniels.  Projection Designer Craig Alfredson.  Magic Consultant Chris Stolz.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Anne Taylor.  Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.

L'orchestre : Nick Apivor Drums / Percussion.  Henry Christian Trumpet.  Ken Cormier Keyboard.  Angus Kellett Keyboard.  Bruce Kellett Keyboard.  Sue Round Cello.

Principal actors :  Kayla James (Mary Poppins).  Susan Anderson (Mrs. Brill / Bird Woman).  Glen Gordon (Michael Banks).  Elizabeth Irving (Jane Banks).  Caitriona Murphy (Winnifred Banks).  Milo Shandel (George Banks).  Scott Walters (Bert).  Katey Wright (Miss Andrew / Mrs. Corry).

Ensemble / supporting actors :  Scott Augustine (Neleus / Ensemble).  Keiran Bohay (Ensemble).  Sierra Brewerton (Annie / Ensemble).  Bobby Callahan (Robertson Ay / Sweep / Von Hussler / Ensemble).  Jarret Cody (Northbrook / Poseidon / Sweep / Ensemble).  Julio Fuentes (Ensemble).  Shannon Hanbury (Annie / Ensemble).  Nathan Kay (Policeman / Ensemble).  Anna Kuman (Katie Nanna / Ensemble).  Brianne Loop (Fanny / Ensemble).  Jennie Neumann (Miss Lark / Ensemble).  Michael Querin (Admiral Boom / Ensemble).  


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