BWW Reviews: National Tour of MARY POPPINS Brings Its Imaginative, Colorful Magic to TPAC's Jackson Hall

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Who knew that Mary Poppins, that brightly colored stage spectacle of a musical comedy confection, would be the theatrical offering that most eloquently addresses the questionable shenanigans of unscrupulous bankers, financiers and other assorted nefarious London financial district/Wall Street types and which champions the importance of family and the common folk?

Certainly, Mary Poppins retains its phantasmagorical, fantastical characters and plotline, but in relating the story originally written by P.L. Travers—which served as the basis for the acclaimed Disney film that still has its claim on our hearts and our imaginations—the musical stage adaptation has a deeper, more genuine resonance, certain to delight and to entertain, but just as likely to touch your heart.

Now ensconced at Andrew Jackson Hall in Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center for an eight-performance run, Mary Poppins is the ideal theatrical offering for all audiences—whatever their ages may be—who are captivated by all the stage wizardry and technical magic that provides the musical’s wonderful, whimsical power.

Beautifully designed—the production features the exquisite scenic and costume design of Bob Crowley, illuminated by Natasha Katz’s exemplary lighting—the musical, as sprightly and hummable as any to come down the pike in years, is sure to thrill younger audience members while taking the more seasoned theater-goer on a nostalgic journey of childlike wonderment mixed with just enough sentimentality to dampen the eyes and tug at the heartstrings.

Incorporating many of the original tunes created for the much revered Disney film (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, the score features new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, which help to draw a sharper focus on the family dynamic and the interdependence of the people who occupy the upstairs and downstairs of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Thankfully, the estimable Julian Fellowes (Academy Award winner for Gosford Park, who is the creator of television’s most-buzzed about series of recent memory Downton Abbey) is the book writer for this production, exhibiting once again the never-ending abundance of knowledge of the Edwardian era that typifies his work.

The musical’s national tour is directed by Anthony Lyn, based upon the original work by Richard Eyre, with Geoffrey Garratt adapting the original choreography of Matthew Bourne. The play’s action moves along at a good pace, with the plot unfolding in a way that is completely engaging and involving. The choreography, which won an Olivier Award in London, is inventive and imaginative, performed beautifully by an exceptional ensemble. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is performed with an ease that belies its complexity, while “Step In Time” is extraordinary, showing off Case Dillard’s fancy footwork to perfection (watching him scale the proscenium in TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall is enough to make you want to see the show over and over). “Jolly Holiday” seems to envelop the entire theater in all its sumptuous, color-soaked glory, which provides a stunningly conceived change from the sepia-toned vision of Edwardian London that comes before and after.

BWW-Reviews-National-Tour-of-MARY-POPPINS-Brings-Its-Imaginative-Colorful-Magic-to-TPACs-Jackson-Hall-20010101At curtain we are introduced to the people of London’s tony Cherry Tree Lane, out for a nip of fresh air in a neighborhood park. Those people include Bert, an affable and charming chimney sweep played with an easy elegance by Case Dillard; the rambunctious Banks children—Jane and Michael, played on opening night in Nashville by Cherish Myers and Zachary Mackiewicz, a pair of thoroughly committed and focused young actors whose exuberant performances are perfectly suited to the material; and their harried and put upon nanny (Elizabeth Ann Berg) who can scarcely control her charges. It comes as no surprise when Katie Nanna abruptly leaves the Banks’ home, presumably in search of a position that includes children more in keeping with her sensibilities.

Thus, the stage is set for the appearance—as if by magic—of the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins, the nanny of everyone’s dreams who uses everything within her estimable power to instill messages of faith, hope and charity among the disparate family members who call 17 Cherry Tree Lane home.

Rachel Wallace looks the very portrait of the Mary Poppins who resides in your mind’s eye: regal and serene, she moves confidently and authoritatively, that very movement showing off the charm and the razzle-dazzle that separates Mary Poppins from we mere mortals. Wallace’s crystal clear soprano is thrillingly—perhaps even trillingly—lovely as she performs the songs that express the inexpressible and convey all the magic, mirth and majesty of her character. If you manage to leave the theater not completely caught up in her wonderful charm, you must have a stone for a heart.

Or it could be that your heart is filled with admiration for Dillard’s Bert who, with a twinkle in his eye and a lightness in his step, serves as your guide through the musical’s fairy tale-like settings and situations. Dillard is remarkably self-assured and his stage presence rivals Wallace’s, completely filling the theatre with his noteworthy performance. And he leads the ensemble through the glorious choreography of “Step In Time” with dash and panache.

Playing Jane and Michael’s parents are Elizabeth Broadhurst as Winifred, the former actress now making her way through the tumultuous London social hierarchy with her heart beguilingly on her sleeve, and Michael Dean Morgan as George Banks, the banker, whose high-handed Manner with his wife and children betrays his lack of confidence as a financial wizard. Broadhurst and Morgan play well off each other, imbuing their characters with enough believability to make their pairing more affecting in the play’s later scenes during which George realizes the folly of his incontrovertible manner and financial machinations.

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Among the ensemble cast—an amazing collection of talents—there are some actors who deserve special notice, particularly the stunning Q. Smith as The Bird Woman and Miss Andrew (the “Holy Terror” who was George Banks’ very own nanny), who received a hearty ovation during the show’s curtain call due to her nicely delineated pair of performances and her beautiful voice; Tonya Thompson, playing Mrs. Corry, in whose “talking shop” the whole “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number takes place; Ryan Hilliard as Admiral Bloom and as the head of George Banks’ bank; Benn Atkin as Neleus, a marble statue come to life with vigor and aplomb; Tregoney Shepherd, wonderfully unctuous as the Mrs. Brill, the Banks family cook and housekeeper (who will remind you of Downton Abbey’s fiery Mrs. Patmore); and Blake Segal as the bumbling, stumbling footman Robertson Ay.

Music director Daniel Bowling conducts the 20-piece orchestra (including 12 Nashville players) that accompanies the onstage action with a fine sense of musicianship, filling the hall to its rafters with tuneful excess.

Mary Poppins. Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and The Walt Disney Film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes. New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Original choreography adapted by Geoffrey Garratt. Tour directed by Anthony Lynn. Presented by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh in a NETworks Presentation at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Andrew Jackson Hall. Through March 25. For details, go to www.tpac.org.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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