Let’s go fly a kite…and maybe a few actors while we’re at it.
Landmark Community Theatre’s production of Disney’s “Mary Poppins” is defying gravity (I love that musical too, but that’s another story) with its use of harnesses to fly Mary Poppins (Katie Brunetto), to make Bert (Randy Ronco) walk up a wall and then upside-down along the ceiling while singing and, perhaps most daringly, to yank frightening nanny Miss Andrews (LaureAnn Price) out of the scene while the actress does back flips through the air after a confrontation with Mary.
The aerial elements added more dimension and excitement to the live stage performance at the Thomaston Opera House and that feat is something that makes many theater groups shy away from choosing “Mary Poppins” for a musical.
The flying didn’t happen when Mary Poppins first arrived, so for awhile I wondered if the cast would tackle that challenge. So when Mary eventually flew off with her parrot-head umbrella gracefully raised later in the first act, the audience reacted with surprise, awe and much applause, as they did each time an actor was lifted.
But even if the directing team hadn’t chosen to include the flying, the show itself would still have lifted the spirits of the audience with the energy of the acting from ensemble to leads, strong vocals and dynamic dance scenes from “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” to the big tap number, “Step in Time.”
Flying aside, one of the most magical parts of the set was Mary’s famous bag, resting on top of a toy chest that went into the floor, that contained items as large as a hat rack and lamp and as small as a measuring tape that tells her Michael (Ben Stone-Zelman) is a “noisy, mischievous and troublesome boy” and that Jane (Kathleen Green) is a “thoughtless, short-tempered and untidy” girl.
Before the show even began, as a first-time visitor to the opera house, I was taking in the beauty of the venue. Even though the space alone had enough ornamentation to please the eye, the set, from the fluidly moving pieces in scene transitions to the main structure, were all painted and decorated with high attention to detail.
The orchestra and organist provided pre-show entertainment playing songs like “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” During the show, they brought dynamic accompaniment to the melodious voices on stage, though sometimes overpowering the singers.
The costumes accented the set and story line with the contrast between the plain but proper black, white and neutral tones in the Banks’ and even sometimes Mary’s clothing to the colorful fabrics in the more imaginative scenes like Mrs. Corry’s (Tracy Funke) “talking shop” and “It’s a Jolly Holiday.” Mary transforms in her famous white dress, hat and parasol with red trim, showing her playful side beneath her proper, strict and confident demeanor.
The British accents were strong, validating the setting of the story.
Yet, Mary’s costumes aren’t overly flashy because she is not meant to upstage everyone around her. Her whimsical, mysterious ways bring magic to everyone around her as the story becomes more about how the people around her change for the better than about seeking attention, as much as she might describe herself as “almost perfect.” You start off the bigger dance sequences watching Brunetto’s Mary and then before you know it she’s gone as you’re watching the community of other characters she’s just helped and influenced. She quietly leaves those scenes as though she’s a guardian angel there to guide everyone around her.
Leading up to the show, I wasn’t sure about how the casting of a younger Mary would fit the story, having the film with Julie Andrews in the title role of the wise and witty mentor in mind. But Brunetto rose to Andrews’ elegance and poise as Mary with her maturity, precision, calculated imagination, glowing and knowing smiles and expressions, demanding yet kind demeanor, graceful dancing and sweet soprano.
Ronco as Bert, our trusty narrator, brings the goofiness of Dick Van Dyke and commanding tenor vocals to the role, even maintaining the same power in singing while hanging upside-down.
During moments in the initial staging of his sidewalk art, I would have liked to see visuals of his drawing from my seat in the balcony instead of a bare stage, however, maybe we were meant to use our imagination. We lose the animated dancing penguins and leaping carousel horses that the movie has, but gain talking, dancing toys and a living statue.
Through introducing Bert to Jane (Green) and Michael Banks (Stone-Zelman), Mary exposes them to raw humanity that breaks away class barriers, showing them that kindness to others and imagination should outweigh any tendencies of prejudice and class snobbery. Bert may be a filthy chimney sweep, but he has a pure heart and helps the children wipe away the troubles that stain what could be a happy family.
She shows children the same message as they walk by St. Paul’s Cathedral and see a poor woman devoting her time to selling bags of food to feed the birds as oppose to herself who is played by Paula Roll in a beautiful rendition of the heartwarming song, “Feed the Birds.” It would have been interesting to see birds flown in around her, fake or trained, or even as part of the set on her stoop, but imagination is a key part of “Mary Poppins,” so perhaps that was one of those moments the audience was left to picture and it was about the woman not the birds themselves.
Jessica Chabre added spunk and charm to the Banks’ household as the maid Mrs. Brill with her sarcastic quips to the children and to the butler (Daniel Dressel). Dressel played the parts of Robertson Ay, dancing statue Neleus, Valentine and the bank chairman and while you recognized him, he brought distinctive humor and character to each.
Green and Stone-Zelman made for a strong brother and sister duo with their chemistry. Stone-Zelman’s comedic timing was spit spot as he let his character’s youthful, mischievous personality shine with gusto in his dances and line delivery.
But as much as Mary Poppins arrives to meet the children’s wishes for the perfect nanny, she also is vital in helping the parents. Having seen “Saving Mr. Banks” within the past year, a movie about “Mary Poppins” author P. L. Travers as Disney pursues the movie rights to her book, I found myself watching the play from a much different perspective. Instead of instantly judging Mr. Banks (Peter Bard) as the stereotypical overbearing father, like I did watching the film version of “Mary Poppins” as a child, I tried to regard him with sympathy.
At first, I felt most sorry for Betsy Edwards’ Mrs. Banks, who is kind-hearted and wants the loving attention of Mr. Banks just as much of the children. It grows clear that the Banks adults come from more modest means. George Banks does everything he can to put that past behind him and strive for a wealthier status. Money and work becomes his primary obsession and he demands a nanny even though Mrs. Banks is always home and questions why they need one. Even though he tries to subdue her past theatrical passion, he forces her to play the role of “Mrs. Banks,” doing charity work and hosting (well, trying anyways) luncheons for “important” ladies.
Mr. Banks’ job title is a little more unclear in the stage version, though you know it has something to do with money and financing. Female ensemble members, donning black skirts, white-collared blouses and black ties represent the bank staff, whereas in the movie it’s men. That made Mr. Banks’ place of work less representative of the male’s role in the society of the story and more about him and the pressure he faces in a world that he believes values wealth over humanity. Though, in community theater it’s often hard to find enough men to participate, so that’s understandable.
There’s no doubt Bard’s Mr. Banks is cranky with no tolerance for nonsense (even though he claims he has no part in domestic decisions), but we see a turning point when Jane (Green) asks him what’s more important in business, the man or the idea and he chooses to finance an honorable person over a client with a money-making scheme. It looks like this will forever change his perspective until his boss suspends him for letting a money mogul slip away to a competitor, causing more inner turmoil as he strains to provide for his family and give them he feels he didn’t have growing up.
Then exit Mary Poppins and enter Mr. Banks’ sinister childhood nanny Miss Andrews (Price) to take her place as the children’s nanny, a character who’s in the book but not the Disney movie. Her sinister presence even sends Mr. Banks into hiding and her caged lark exemplifies the metaphorical prison she closes the children she’s caring for into, yet Price was still able to get a laugh in one of her intentionally shrill high notes in “Brimstone and Treacle.”
The “Brimstone and Treacle” of Miss Andrews instantly remind me of a witch’s brew and I could see a child with a wild imagination characterizing her as an evil sorceress. We never really solve the mystery of Mary and her ways. But having Miss Andrews as a villain brings out the manipulative and cunning strength of Mary Poppins from beneath the surface to make her even braver and tougher than we know her to be in the film with a dash of magic.
Having Miss Andrews in the story also makes Mr. Banks’ harshness more understandable. As Michael (Stone-Zelman) says, “that explains a lot” about Mr. Banks, saying a lot for the importance of the English nanny in shaping who children grow up to be. Mary Poppins may be stern, but she has values of kindness over Miss Andrews’ focus on class, which ultimately helps bring the family together.
Mary’s “spoonful of sugar” mindset as opposed to Miss Andrew’s bitter medicine approach of punishment ultimately wins out and wins our hearts.
Unlike many leads in musicals, Mary Poppins is not a character with a love story. The love story in the show is a different kind about a disjointed family trying to reconnect. When Mr. and Mrs. Banks kiss at the end, that’s the unexpected love story we witness, telling us the Banks family is going to be just fine.
The play was directed by James Donahue, who also appeared on stage flying a kite and in select scenes due to cast illnesses.
The Thomaston Operahouse is located on Main Street in Thomaston.
More information is available on www.landmarkcommunitytheatre.org.