Mary Poppins transforms musical theater into magical theater

Photo by Carole Lawson-Sweezy

By Carol Lawson-Swezey

From the moment that Mary Poppins pulls a six-foot hat rack out of her satchel, the audience expects there will be magical morsels in the CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre production of Mary Poppins. What it got was enchantment entwined throughout the production, blowing in and out like the wind which brings the “near perfect” nanny to the rescue of a troubled London family in 1910.

The July 23 opening night production brought together a cast of 36, ages 11 to 70. Some were veteran performers, others debutants- all were wonderful. The magic began from the onset, against the backdrop of a darkened London sky with a soot faced Bert, the chimney sweep, singing the iconic strains of the Academy Award winning song “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The performance continued to captivate the audience with show stopping ensemble numbers to the hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Feed the Birds” and the soaring of characters across the star-speckled horizon, proving the show a nonstop kaleidoscope of talent.

Veteran actors Seth Scott, as Bert, and Christy Hathaway, as Mary Poppins, could very easily have stolen the show if not for the plethora of talent that encircled them. They both gave stellar and show elevating performances. For Hathaway, playing the irrepressible nanny is a repeat performance. She played Mary at the Raisin Cane’s production of Mary Poppins back in January of this year.

Jack Wren, as Michael Banks, and Karlie Stemler, as his sister Jane, were alternately sweet and sour and very engaging as the Banks children. The show’s comic relief came in the form of Ethel Birrell, as the sassy “older than time” shopkeeper Mrs. Corry; Donna Beavers as the brillo pad haired housekeeper Mrs. Brill; and Dakota Simpson as the bungling butler, Robertson Ay. Mr. Bank’s sinister resurrected nanny, Mrs. Andrew, who was described as someone who “would eat her young,” was played with melodramatic malevolence by Jennifer Goettsch.

For those of us baby boomers who knew all the verses to “A spoonful of sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” watching the play brought an anticipated dose of nostalgia. What wasn’t expected was the surge of real emotion awakened by the lessons learned and our immersion in the transformation of the character’s lives.

For those expecting a repeat of the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke movie version of Mary Poppins, those assumptions might have to be rewired. The musical sticks much closer to the PL Travers stories than it does the movie.

“The iconic music is all in place, along with the favorite scenes from the movie,” said director Scott Hancock. “But the show delves more into the relationship between Mary and the kids and the Banks family in general.”

Accompanied by a live orchestra, complete with sound effects, time period costumes, realistic quickly moving sets, choreography and foot stomping tunes—all combined to provide a profusion of color and reminiscence. Although some of the singers had remarkably strong voices, those who didn’t made up for it in character and believability. But there were some standouts. Kelly Jones-Scott, the mother of Seth Scott, who played Bert, gave a poignant and mesmerizing performance as the frail, trembling bird woman who sang “Feed the birds,” in a rendition which the audience never wanted to end.

Many of the ensemble performances were so finely tuned and intricate. It was hard to imagine that we weren’t watching a Broadway show. Most notable were the dancing statues in the park and Mrs. Corry’s shoppers and stompers. Both show stopping and stomping was the energetic and exquisite dance of the chimney sweeps to “Step in Time,” culminating in Bert climbing sideways up a wall and soaring over the rooftops.

Director Hancock said the production has been a “joy from day one.”

“Watching something of this size, with the scenery, costumes, live orchestra, and the flying of actors all coming together to form a beautiful theatrical experience, has been a thrill,” Hancock said.

And for many of us who sat in that darkened theater, once again believing that we could fly and that a spoonful of sugar could make everything better, believing in Mary Poppins was once again a thrill.

Performances of Mary Poppins will continue at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre, 902 Fifth Street on July 30, 31 and August 1. More information at centerstageclovis.com