Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Mary Poppins" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Mary Poppins is a classic and beloved movie. What child growing up in this country in the last 50 years didn't grow up with the no nonsense magical nanny? The surprising thing is that this original movie musical released in 1964 wasn't adapted for the stage until 40 years later. But when it finally was, it was a success; the Broadway production ran for six years and toured the country, including a stop in Minneapolis in 2013. While it's not a perfect adaptation, the stage musical does retain the magical quality of the movie and many of the most loved moments and song. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' new production of Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical is delightful and charming with a huge and talented cast.

The familiar story we know and love from the classic movie is mostly there on stage, except, sadly, the floating to the ceiling with laughter scene and the women's suffrage subplot. Mary shows up to the Banks family in London because they need her. Father George is too busy with his important job at the bank to spend much time or thought on his children Jane and Michael, who are acting out and scaring all the nannies away, and mother Winifred doesn't know what to do to help the situation (pretty much the definition of first world problems). Enter Mary Poppins, who takes the children on fantastical outings while teaching them to be more considerate and responsible. After a crisis at the bank, George learns to appreciate his family, and with the family unit healed, Mary Poppins departs as quickly as she arrived, on to help the next family.

When I saw Mary Poppins on tour two years ago, I thought it was too long, especially for a show that will draw a lot of kids. The songs, scenes, and storylines that were added are just not as compelling as those we're familiar with from the movie. I was hoping that director Michael Brindisi would trim some of the fat, but I don't know how much freedom a regional theater has to make changes when licencing a work such as this. So I'll blame the creators of the piece for making it feel a bit bloated and draggy in parts. But it certainly doesn't overshadow the wonderful moments in the show, which are many:
Ann Michels as Mary Poppins
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • It's not easy to step into Julie Andrews' sensible shoes in her iconic portrayal of Mary Poppins, but the Chanhassen has found just the right actor to do so. There's no practically about it, Ann Michels is perfect in every way - her voice, her posture, her attitude, her comic timing, her look, even the way she holds the umbrella. She's an absolute delight to watch in this beloved role.
  • As young Jane and Michael Banks, Isabelle Erhart and Jay Soulen (who share the roles with two other actors) are adorable, very present and expressive with lovely voices who fit right in with the veteran cast.
  • Fantastic dancer Mark King plays Bert, who serves as a sort of narrator of the story, often on stage observing the action as well as taking part in it. He has a sort of melancholy about him, as if he knows that Mary will soon leave.
  • Seri Johnson is, as always, hilarious as the frazzled housekeeper Mrs. Brill. She and Scott Blackburn, as butler Robertson Ay, make for quite the comedy team, like a warped version of Mrs. Hughes and Carson.
  • Even though the Mr. Banks at the bank story is not very interesting, Chan favorite Keith Rice is a joy to watch as he transforms from a prickly and absent father to a more devoted family man, with the help of Janet Hayes Trow's sweet and caring Mrs. Banks, who I wish had more to sing about than "Being Mrs. Banks."
  • Michelle Barber only has a few short scenes on stage, but her "Feed the Birds" is a lovely and quiet moment in the busy show.
Mary, Bert, and the children
in the sky (photo by
Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography shines in a couple of group numbers. In "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," the cast spells the crazy long word in song and with their bodies, and it's a thrill as the speed increases and the precision never wavers. "Step in Time" is a tap-dancing delight, with chimney sweeps popping up as if by magic in the audience and slowly making their way onto the stage for the ever increasing energy of the number.
  • The entire show has a sort of magical, dreamlike quality. The set is dominated by a large moon, with ladders climbing to the sky. Low-tech theatrical tricks create the illusions of flying and large objects coming out of Mary's bag. Hundreds of tiny lights twinkle on the ceiling in the formation of the constellations, making one want to lean one's head back and get lost in the stars (set design by Nayna Ramey, lighting design by Sue Ellen Berger).
  • The Chanhassen's resident costume designer Rich Hamson (who recently had his own moment to shine on stage) has clothed the cast in a wide array of London street garb, living life-size toy costumes, and other fantastical getups.
  • Last but not least, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Music Director Andrew Cooke and his always fabulous onstage band, making this (mostly) familiar music sound great.
The Chanhassen's Mary Poppins is a joyful production (even if it is a bit too long), filled with great performances and plenty of theatrical magic. Playing now through the end of August, so you have plenty of time to get out to the suburbs and experience the magic.

It's a Jolly Holiday! (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)