BWW Review: ZACH Theatre's MARY POPPINS is 'Practically Perfect in Every Way'
In ZACH's production of MARY POPPINS, director Dave Steakley has assembled one of the strongest casts in Austin this year. Based on the 1964 Disney film adaption and the similarly titled Mary Poppin's children's books by P.L. Travers, the musical is a blending of both the lighter elements of the film and the heavier aspects of the books. In his director's notes, Steakley tells a beautiful story of his connection to the material (one that I truly hope audiences get a chance to read), and he explains his chosen surrealistic approach. Using whimsical projections and set pieces, the audience immediately realizes that this isn't a typical production of Poppins. Normally, I'm not a fan of projections, but I slowly began to feel that Steakley's placement of the projections and set pull the audience into an intimate, stylized atmosphere that gives the same effect as peering back in time through a Kinetoscope. The cast is a "dream team" of some of Austin's finest performers, ensuring that MARY POPPINS is a production the entire family will adore. On the evening I attended, high-energy numbers such as "Jolly Holiday", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Step in Time," whipped the audience into a joyful frenzy.
No doubt, this production is a veritable 'who's who' in the current Austin theatre scene. Jill Blackwood shines as she takes on the iconic title role of Mary Poppins. An audience member remarked how she had never realized that the title role, is, in fact, a tad bit "scary." But that's just what makes Mary Poppins "Practically Perfect." Ms. Blackwood did a marvelous job of embodying the concepts of magical, assertive, other-worldly, sassy and delightful. Along with Ms. Blackwood, there were many strong performers in this cast. Stand-out performances included the incomparable Amber Quick in the role of Mrs. Brill. Ms. Quick is the "real deal" when it comes to boundless talent, as she masterfully dominates roles in both theatre and music theatre. She is a smart performer, and because of her ingenious choices, she garnered her very own applause as she exited her sidesplitting scenes. In the role of Bird Woman, Ryan Smith stopped the show with her pure and honest performance of "Feed the Birds." This is a role that often gets overlooked, but Smith's gorgeous, heart-felt performance was stunning. In the terrifying role of the abusive nanny, Miss Andrew (a character found only in the book), Michelle Alexander possesses one of the most powerful voices I've heard in a long time, and her scenes will knock your socks off. The audience falls in love with Ms. Banks, played by Jennifer Young Mahlstedt, with whom all rejoice with as she stands up for herself and her family. And then...there are the roles of Jane and Michael Banks. Played flawlessly by Scarlet Craig and Anderson Zoll respectively, these two young actors effortlessly steal each of their scenes. I was amazed to see such depth in their characters, as well as a mature understanding of comedic timing. As children who have become "naughty" because of being emotionally abandoned by a father who was raised without love, and a mother who is broadsided by her feelings of abandonment within her marriage, loss of her career, and the pressures of her new "expectations" of an upper-middle-class wife in the Edwardian era, Jane and Michael are grossly misunderstood, and unfortunately only add to family stress as times become financially difficult. The roles of the Banks children could easily be miscast; a director could simply rely on the "cuteness" factor of the children, without expectations of character development or charisma. But Craig and Zoll were fully aware of their individual character arc and journey, and their chemistry onstage was brilliant. Balanced with an intuitive knack for comedic timing, these two are not to be missed.
Because the musical adheres more to material found in the book than the movie, it sometimes got a bit hard to stomach what can only be described as old-fashioned verbal abuse by a husband to his wife and children. Suddenly, in these moments, the atmosphere of the light-hearted musical was lost. This was certainly not the fault of Mr. Steakley or in the thoughtful portrayal of George Banks by Austin favorite Tyler Jones, but in the transfer of material from the book to the musical itself. There is no doubt that the harsher side of this character was glossed-over in the bubbly, cheerful Disney film.
MARY POPPINS is chock-full of perfectly-timed comedy, incredible voices, and mind-blowing choreography. Aside from a few missteps in British diction from a couple of the minor roles, the authenticity of the dialect from all major characters was impeccable. (One might think that this isn't worth noting in a review, but sit through any painful production of Noises-Off or My Fair Lady, and you will truly appreciate a cast that gets it right.) In the end, the most impressive factor within MARY POPPINS is simply the realization that we have such a powerfully talented community of local performers. Don't let MARY POPPINS fly away before you get a chance to catch this brilliant cast.
ZACH Theatre's MARY POPPINS will be playing now through Sunday, September 4th at The Topfer Theatre at 202 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704. Performances are Wednesdays thru Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2:30. Tickets are $29-$104. For tickets and information, please visit ZachTheatre.org.