BWW Reviews: Mediocre MARY POPPINS Lands at Theatre By the Sea
When it comes to live theatre, there are many different ways to present it and at least two distinct camps. One is the minimalist, pared down production, often focused on story, dialogue, and character. The other is the big, highly technical spectacle filled with all sorts of theatrical magic tricks. With their current production of Mary Poppins, Theatre By the Sea has focused on the latter at the expense of the former, choosing gimmickry over truthful, enjoyable storytelling and characters. And unfortunately, that's only the beginning of the production's weak spots.
Mary Poppins is, as most of you know, I'm sure, the lead character in a series of childrens' books by P. L. Travers, books which were turned into a beloved Disney movie in 1964. In that movie, and the Broadway musical version, Mary drops in on the Banks family and announces that she has arrived to be the new nanny to the children, Jane and Michael. What follows is a journey filled with wonder and magic as Mary teaches the kids, and the entire family, a thing or two about life and love.
At Theatre By the Sea, those lessons in life and love are put on the back burner in favor of lots of theatrical wizardry. The fact that actors will be flying is not only announced and pointed out, but it's made to sound as if it's the most important part of the evening's proceedings. They really want to make sure everyone knows, "we flew someone over the audience in this old barn theater!" but what does it all really do for the audience and the production as a whole? Truthfully, not much. The flying is actually more of a distraction than anything else. Making the technical matters worse, many of the other production elements came off as clunky and amateurish. Flying scenery came in too fast or slow, or at the wrong time, or hit the stage. Other scenery rolled on and off loudly, at inopportune moments.
Not helping matters is the equally distracting way in which Mary Poppins is performed by actress Kerry Conte. It's likely that this isn't her fault, Conte was probably directed to deliver the role in the fashion that she does, which is to say, never changing her expression ("Eyes Wide! Big Smile!") for most of the show and often looking like either an animatronic statue at Disney World or just a crazy person. I realize this isn't the same Mary from the movie, but still, it's an odd choice for a character who should be, to some degree, warm, loving and likeable, even when she is, on the surface, being tough on the kids. This Mary is at times downright scary. In at least two scenes, she has this frightening and inappropriate to the moment expression on her face that's truly off-putting. Once, at the very end, there's a wonderful moment between Mary and Bert, where we see a flash of actual emotion, believable humanity, in Mary's face. It's a sign of what could have been and it's too little too late. To her credit, Conte does have a beautiful singing voice and delivers a couple of great lines when Mary gets a little snarky.
The primary male lead, Brad Bradley as Bert, fares better but his character is equally as confounding. At times he's just a character in the show. Other times, he's our narrator. And then suddenly, he becomes more than just a narrator, actually guiding the action and causing things to happen. It's never clear what role or function he performs. Bradley does have a nice singing voice, although the accent is a little hit-or-miss, and sports some great dance moves. He also has some nice moments towards the end, in the big chimney sweep number (the highlight of the show) and then in a few separate scenes he shares with Mr. Banks and Mary Poppins.
Speaking of Mr. Banks, it may or may not be a surprise that this is actually his story. The recent movie, Saving Mr. Banks, partly focused on the idea that Travers' intention in the books was that Mary actually shows up to save Mr. Banks. James Andrew Walsh gives one of the show's best performances in the role, offering some nice moments and a clear journey from the tightly wound disciplinarian to the loving family man. He's also the most real and human character on stage, along with his wife, Mrs. Banks, played by Haley Swindal. She also gets some great moments of internal conflict and turmoil, as she struggles with what it means to be Mrs. Banks and to be a woman in London at that time. Swindal shows some great talent and skill with perhaps the most nuanced and interesting role in the musical.
As the Banks children, Scarlett Keene-Connole and Bobby Miller III are both adorable. They've got an impressive amount of stage presence and confidence for two actors who are so young. As for the rest of the ensemble, they are mixed bag, as one might expect. Cher Cockshaw is a bit of scene stealer as Miss Lark and Tonya Tompson delivers the strongest voice of the entire group as Miss Andrew and Mrs. Corry. There are, of course, a number of nameless ensemble members who fill up the stage in the big dance numbers, but they are plagued by some poor directorial choices and subpar choreography. In one big number, they seem to be dancing in quicksand, while in another it's clear that their skill in dancing with broomsticks is, at best, uneven.
Uneven is a good way to describe the show's technical elements, some of which really bog down the story and characters. The set by Bert Scott is a mashup of elements that don't work together. Much of it is very cartoonish, as if drawn by children. That's fine, but if you're going to go that route, then go all the way, fully commit to it. Instead, there are realistic elements mixed in that don't look right. The Banks' house is a particular mystery. It's impossible to know what look Scott was going for but it hasn't worked, it looks either silly, perplexing or both.
Kurt Alger's costumes don't fare a whole lot better than the set. To be fair, Mary herself gets to wear the most beautiful clothes on stage, and she always looks fabulous. The Banks family, especially the kids, also look great. But what happened with the ensemble? There are at least two big dance numbers where the stage is filled with awful, garish colors, creating a kaleidoscopic swirl that is almost nausea-inducing.
There is little doubt that fans of Mary Poppins will still find things to enjoy and appreciate in this production. The night I attended, there was much cheering and applause, especially when...wait for it...an actor flew over the audience! In the end, though, it seems like it was a wasted opportunity to bring a touching, timeless story, featuring beloved characters, to an area stage. And while Theatre By the Sea certainly pulled off the technical feats they promised, it would have been nice to see them really do justice to the story, the beating heart, of Mary and the Banks family.
Mary Poppins is at Theatre By the Sea through August 16. Tickets can be purchased by calling 401-782-8587, online at theatrebythesea.com, or in person at 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield, RI 02879. Tickets are $42, $52 or $62 for all performances. Performance times are 8pm Tuesday through Saturday, 4pm on Saturdays, 2pm on Wednesday and Thursday the 13th and 14th, and 5pm on Sunday the 3rd and 10th.