REVIEW: The Encore Theatre’s ‘Mary Poppins’

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Olivia Hernandez and Sebastian Gerstner in Encore Theatre’s “Mary Poppins.” (Photo by Michele Anliker)

Wait – did you feel that?

Wind’s in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewing, ‘bout to begin …

In case you don’t recognize these lyrics, they’re sung in anticipation of the arrival of the magical English nanny Mary Poppins, who recently came in for a landing at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

The stage musical adaptation of “Mary Poppins” – with a book by “Downton Abbey” scribe Julian Fellowes, and new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drew, alongside many of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s memorable songs from the 1964 Disney film version – draws from both P.L. Travers’ original book series and the Oscar-nominated movie.

In Edwardian London, young Jane (Olivia Goosman) and Michael Banks (Emmanuel Morgan) are working through a series nannies, thanks to their pranks and a penchant for running off. Their emotionally distant father, banker George Banks (Daniel A. Helmer), convinces himself that his wife Winifred (Ally Kaufman) is simply not hiring nannies who are sturdy and strict enough for the job; but before he can even place an advertisement, Mary Poppins (Olivia Hernandez) mysteriously appears, insinuating herself into the family’s life before anyone can figure out what’s happening.

The children have magical adventures with Mary and her chimney sweep friend, Bert (Sebastian Gerstner); but when George is suspended from his job, his past comes to haunt not only him but his children as well, forcing George to re-assess his priorities and choices.

If you’re like me, you’re most familiar with Disney’s take on Travers’ story, so let me begin by saying that the stage musical is markedly different, and a few shades darker. Familiar songs arise in unfamiliar contexts – “Jolly Holiday” happens in the park, with a statue that comes to life; “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” breaks out in a sweets shop that also sells words – and a new number, “Playing the Game,” in which Jane and Michael’s toys come to life and avenge their treatment, strikes a creepy note.

Plus, a subplot that involves George’s childhood nanny – a rigid, mean-spirited woman named Miss Andrew (Amy Dolan-Malaney) – arriving to take care of Jane and Michael kicks off the show’s second act, thus demonstrating how George became the order-loving, cold man he is. Yet despite these forays into the world’s more menacing forces, the stage musical feels less textured and satisfying, not more, in its attempts to integrate so many elements from various sources; the new songs struggle mightily to stand up to the Sherman brothers’ ear candy brilliance; and with a running time of two and a half hours, the show tests the very young ones it intends to enchant.

But flawed blueprint notwithstanding, Encore, and director Thalia Schramm, have put together a charming theater experience, thanks in large part to Hernandez’s winning lead performance. It’s obviously challenging to step into Julie Andrews’ shoes, since Poppins is one of the actress’ career-defining roles; but Hernandez, with her clear, gorgeous (but never grandstanding) vocals, and her firm, no-nonsense mien, makes you wish Mary Poppins would fly into your own life and provide some much-needed guidance.

Gerstner, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as kindhearted Bert, and he gets his biggest chance to shine in the show’s best production number, the tap-happy “Step in Time” (choreographed by Rachel Constantino). Helmer and Kaufman do a good job of communicating all that goes unexpressed in their deteriorating, lonely marriage; and while three different actors are rotating performances in the roles of both Jane and Michael, the two I got to see, Goosman and Morgan, did some really nice work, maintaining character consistency (not to mention a British accent) throughout, and working seamlessly within the larger production.

Musical director Tyler Driskill presides over an orchestra that definitely traversed some rough spots (particularly on horn parts) on Saturday night, but the vocals generally hit the mark; Kristin Gribben designed the show’s set, which features a staircase leading up to Jane and Michael’s bedroom, and uses rolling set pieces (and steps) that are turned around, folded in, or removed in order to appear as a new backdrop. Sharon Larkey Urick designed the costumes, making sure Mary Poppins always visually pops from the more earthy tones that surround her; and Tyler Chinn designed the lighting, creating some subtle visual effects where a more bells-and-whistles production would likely supply something far more literal.

Which brings me to my last point about Encore’s “Mary Poppins”: because Encore is an intimate blackbox space, Poppins can’t do her trademark flying, black-umbrella-in-hand, and the stage magic that happens is a of a decidedly modest kind (the act of Poppins pulling a hat stand from her bag looks a bit clunky, and a messy room that cleans itself at Poppins’ finger-snap is limited to a couple of items). But you’ll find that you don’t really miss these elements.

See, I took my young daughters to the show, and in one moment, when the characters on stage waved, supposedly as Mary flew off into the sky, my five year old looked back, trying to spot her in the rafters. This indicated to me that all Encore needed to make magic with “Mary Poppins” is a good team, on- and off-stage. And that, they have.

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