The childlike wonder that never really leaves us is always ready to resurface and allow us to experience something fantastic should we let our imaginations run free. It’s the same kind of wonder one experiences taking their kids to Disneyland for the first time, say. Those butterflies in your stomach, the goosebumps on your arms, and the slight ache in your jaw you get while smiling and trying to hold back tears as the magic suddenly comes rushing back from your memories. That’s the feeling I had while watching “Mary Poppins” at the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark last Saturday evening.
This review contains slight spoilers for the show’s production elements and story.
Shawn Adams-Lanz is no stranger to magical productions, having directed many shows in this vein before. This experience brings an expertise to the stage that is clear in all aspects of the production. The direction is tight and clear, with each character expressing their story, and all of the other elements helping them to do so.
I sat in the front row for this performance, and I consider that a great choice in this case. Not only do some great moments take place up on High Street’s well-known balcony sets - with the character of Bert taking many reflective moments up there to sing to the audience - but also I was able to truly experience the sensation of Mary Poppins flying high above me.
Yes, Mary Poppins flies.
The very first hint of the show’s magic came after George Banks tore up his children’s nanny advertisement and tossed it into the fireplace - whereupon the pieces of paper then floated up into the chimney. This could have been done simply with a sound effect (which was also used), but that wasn’t enough for this production. They were able to create a practical effect of the torn papers actually flying up and into the set piece. Not long after that, during a refrain of the song, Mary Poppins herself goes flying across the top of the proscenium, umbrella in hand. My heart jumped with joy as she effortlessly landed on the balcony which served as the Banks’ roof.
Randi Redman virtually disappears into the role of Poppins. Absolutely everything she does is in complete service to the character. Her mannerisms, her proper attitude, her posh British inflection, and even her mugging all perfectly embody the polite yet mischievous nanny. In speaking with Redman after the show, she said she was so pleased to be able to play a very sassy character, and yet still be completely beloved by the audience for it. There was not one moment in the production where the character of Mary Poppins ceased to exist, and the actor peeked through. Redman simply is Mary Poppins.
Ezra Eells’ natural charm lends itself marvelously to the role of Bert, who helps to guide the audience through the story at key moments. He eases through the show with confidence and a likeable swagger, not unlike a certain Mr. Van Dyke. His accent is more believable, luckily. While this role is physically demanding for Eells - as many of his recent roles have been - I can definitely see that Bert is a comfortable fit for him. He does very well in it, as is anticipated.
Our other leads include the Banks family - with Darrin Ingram and Courtney Potter playing George and Winifred respectively. Ingram himself has been on a break from the stage for over 8 years, but you wouldn’t know it watching him get into the role. While the stage-George doesn’t make as grand or as important an entrance as the movie-George, Ingram handles the role of the play’s straight-man with calm and facility. Though there were a couple moments where I felt a touch more heartfelt emotion would elevate a particular scene even higher.
Potter, though usually doing armfuls of work within the theater community, is no stranger to the stage. She shines in the role of Winifred Banks, which is - somewhat confusedly - neutered from the movie version, who works tirelessly as a proud suffragette, and whose time spent out of the house definitely necessitates a full-time nanny to watch the children. With Winifred relegated to simply “Being Mrs. Banks,” as the song says, there isn’t much for the character to do in the show. Regardless, Potter brings a satisfying, emotional weight to Winifred’s inner turmoil as she struggles with wanting to do more and be more.
The Banks children, Jane and Michael, are both double-cast in the production. While not appearing in the lead roles, the young actors remain onstage as part of the ensemble. I saw Emerson West as Jane and Leo Helfrich as Michael. Emerson was always present and attentive to her fellow actors on stage, which is not always the case with young actors, proving at a young age that she has the ability to carry a show. Leo was delightful as Michael, and possesses the difficult-to-teach natural charm to get away with a couple moments of corpsing on stage. Truly impressive is his singing voice, which has noticeably improved over the past couple of years.
Further mention is deserved of Erin Fagundes, who plays the Bird Woman - a pivotal role that helps to teach not only the Banks children about kindness and acceptance, but also serves as a heartwarming moment for George Banks as his character comes to full realization toward the show’s climax. Her song, “Feed the Birds,” brought tears to my eyes.
Patrick Rogers pulls double-duty as both Admiral Boom and the infamous Bank Chairman - two characters which Rogers clearly has ample fun portraying. Nearly every moment with the Bank Chairman captures your attention and brings smiles to the faces in the audience.
A character making a late appearance in the play, Miss Andrew, comes storming onto the stage with palpable power and authority - not to mention a very striking appearance due to a fun and almost impressionistic make-up. Katie McTyre breathes the very brimstone she sings of as she commands the stage and the audience’s attention with a wonderfully larger-than-life performance. She makes it twice as fun to watch Mary Poppins give her a what-for.
The rest of the cast features many players with many standout roles, including Tami Keaton as Mrs. Brill, the Banks’ cook, whose frantic energy and worrisome nature contrast well with the bumbling and useless Robertson Ay, played with great comedic aptitude by Noah Terry; Amie Woolweber as Mrs. Corry, a baker, who unabashedly lets her native Wisconsin accent fly and is especially enjoyable during the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number; Lauren Rachel as Miss Lark, whose puppy antics always got a laugh out of me, and whose dancing talent really shines; DJ Brady playing Park Keeper, who switches between comedically over-authoritative and blissful childlike wonder with the blink of an eye; Lyndon Adolf Apostol as the park statue Neleus, whose surprising acrobatics and dance experience is on full display throughout the show; Michael Kronenberg, who plays Von Hussler, and who’s improved immensely as a theater performer in every aspect of the term over the last few years - it’s such a pleasure to have seen him grow; and Andrew Nunez as Valentine, who not only gets several chances to show his singing ability, but brings a level of creepiness to a surprisingly scary segment of the show where the Banks childrens’ toys comes to life to seek revenge on the selfish youngsters for their rough play.
The technical elements of the show were all expertly assembled, and are examples of the best the craft has to offer, regardless of this being a community theater production or not. From the immaculately designed Banks house folding set - designed by Four Star Award winners Scott and Sierra Armstrong (and given the complicated set pieces, I was very impressed with how fast the stage crew handled the scene changes in a speedy and efficient manner) - to the incredibly detailed costumes done by Barbara Mazeika. Part of the magic of the show is how perfect the Mary Poppins costumes look, from her standard blue-and-black, to the “Jolly Holiday” look, to the famous, red “Step In Time” outfit. They could have been cut right out of the movie itself.
Special praise must be given to the “A Spoonful of Sugar” number, which features props and set pieces that magically repair themselves after being smashed, broken, and thrown from the walls, harkening back to the film. Being a stage production, and not benefitting from the use of reversing the film footage to accomplish this trick, I half wasn’t expecting this to happen, and so when it did I was beyond delighted. This, along with the multiple uses of flight rigging in the production, really made this show stand out from its peers in a way I haven’t seen in a long while. High Street’s technical team continues to nail that special brand of Disney magic.
Lisa Yaldezian’s music direction is at full force here, as harmonies shine through and make each number ring out beautifully, especially with the “Supercali-” number, and it never felt like the actors were out of time with the music or lost (a major accomplishment with some of these songs). Choreography by Julie Hackett and Renee Delgado is stellar, with the “Supercali-” dance, “Jolly Holiday,” and “Step in Time” all showcasing incredible talent and even more amounts of successful hard work by the cast.
All in all, High Street’s “Mary Poppins” is a tour de force, wholly demonstrating how a small theater with limited stage and wing space can use imagination and creativity to produce something that propels a simple theater-going experience into an unforgettable evening of joyful, childhood feelings of wonderment and magic. The cast and crew all indeed took a page from Mary Poppins’ book for this production, proving that “anything can happen, if you let it.”
“Mary Poppins” runs at High Street for one more weekend, with four more performances falling on Friday, February 22nd, and Saturday February 23rd at 8pm; and 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday, February 24th. Tickets are available at www.highstreetartscenter.com and at the box office: (805) 529-8700.