Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In A Most Delightful Way

Now, I must preface the following by explaining that I grew up on movie musical classics (from my parent’s standards) such as Wizard of Oz, Annie, My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, Meet Me in St. Louis, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story. Then there was the never-ending anthology of Disney favorites like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin, and the topic of this hour: Mary Poppins.

Julie Andrews’ distinctive voice filled our house as far back as I can remember and while I would have rather had her short haircut from Sound of Music, I always wanted to be best friends with the infamous nanny. It was the magic in cleaning the nursery and jumping into sidewalk chalk paintings that paved the way for my imagination and impatience with my pitiable “snap.”

Am I biased towards the current National Touring Production of Cameron Macintosh’s MARY POPPINS that flew (overused pun yes, but clever initially) into the Music Hall at Fair Park this past week? Not at all. Not many people could deny Disney’s ability to put on a good show, even in this last lackluster year economically. And this production does not disappoint. Sticking closer to the roots of the original book by Pamela Travers, this traveling show is a chance for the country to see almost a cookie-cut of the current Broadway production including the two original Broadway leads Ashley Brown as Mary Poppins and Gavin Lee as Bert.

Brown is no stranger to being the Disney gal having played Belle in Beauty & the Beast in New York. She’s got the look, the magic, and the umbrella (which always frightened me I must admit...but now they’re being sold at merchandise stands for $40 and I secretly want one). Despite being a little congested (heard through the grapevine) Brown didn’t let the soreness in her cords visible to the Music Hall audience. Instead, her ability to mix and flip into this clean operatic tone has the “effect to be hypnoscious.” Putting my child hat down and putting my actress hat on, I realized the one problem I have always had with Mary Poppins is her one-dimensional draw and almost robotic at times reaction, or non-reaction, throughout the storyline. However, Brown prevails again creating a very real character who doesn’t wear her emotions on her smart-costume-sleeve but does show emotions other than the “Best foot forward. Spit spot” manner that Mary Poppins prides herself in. We see a woman who has confidence and stellar poise but can be touched by words and actions of others. We see a woman who, even for a brief moment, can be affected by harsh criticism only to refuel and not allow her umbrella’s feathers to be ruffled. Oh, and she can do long tap routines in heels, with a beaming smile from chimney to chimney, and that consistent combo of grace and mystery that defines Mary Poppins...the human.

Unfortunately, Gavin Lee came down with laryngitis and was unable to perform but will hopefully grace the Music Hall stage during their 4-week run. Fortunately, Dominic Roberts’ has had a few cracks at the role and has great energy onstage. Roberts tap is electric and his love for Mary shows more than Dick Van Dyke’s opportunity in the iconic film, which provides interesting levels. Bert’s almost puppeteer-like role onstage is fun to watch and you never truly know what he might do next. Roberts’ stature doesn’t prevent him from assisting in his co-star’s trickery.

Other stand outs include Karl Kenzler as George Banks as he made me believe every word out of his mouth in his truthful performance. Aida Neitenbach portrays Jane Banks and her mature pipes Blew. Me. Away! Justin Hall as Michael Banks delivers one-liners that hurl the audience into laughter. Andrew Keenan Bolger as Robertson Ay, who’s facial expressions forced me to make similar expressions subconsciously as scenes played out and he provides proof that physical comedy and character actors CAN succeed in the theatre.

My favorite moment of the night was what I can only describe as The Soprano Showdown. Dueling on high soprano with an unbelievable mix ability was Brown, opposite the towering Ellen Harvey who manages to send this pulse shooting through the Texas State Fair with ever held vibrato-trilled note, and when I say “held note,” I really mean...her lungs are like those multi-pocketed jeans from the 90s. This song was so eye (ear) opening I had to get the conductor’s score just to see what final note Ashley Brown effortlessly connects with...just a high C. Brava!

After lengthy discussion, this staged production of MARY POPPINS is a must see. If the tapping doesn’t get you, then the magic will. And I didn’t even mention the jaw-dropping finale that gave me goose bumps and brought the Music Hall to it’s feet. It had thousands of patrons literally screaming with appreciation. Would you really want to miss that?

peace. love. and sugar.