Mary Poppins has flown into Wheelock Family Theatre, and it has been delighting audiences for weeks. My review of the opening night performance is just that: an opening night performance review. Exhausted from rehearsals, rattled by the whir of technical demands, and effected by everyone sinking into his or her roles, the production did not dazzle the way that it has over the past few weeks. For once, I wanted to see this production again to notice the splendor and magic of this talented ensemble and star-studded cast bring the “practically perfect” Nanny to our Boston stage. As I saw it, Wheelock’s Mary Poppins was merely “a spoonful of sugar;” the recipe for success was there, but it needed more fine-tuning and time for the production to really soar.
Mary Poppins is a faithful (though expanded) adaptation of the popular Disney movie about the Banks family’s trials and tribulations towards finding and loving each other, through the help of a nanny, Mary Poppins. The musical opens with Bert (played with some aloof charm by Dan Reardon) introducing us to Cherry Lane and the magic that is childhood. However, our first introduction is Janie E. Howland’s superb and simplistic set; the black cut-outs of a tree and a lamppost set this storybook tale on the right course. Howland’s set is a backdrop for the magic to happen, but its malleability and perfect tone sets it apart from other Disney sets that try to transport us directly. And we have many places to go! Starting in the Banks’ home on Cherry Lane, we meet banker and patriarch George Banks (played with much empathy by Andrew Giordano); his wife, Winifred Banks (played with simple grace by Laura D. DeGiacomo); and their children, daughter Jane Banks (played that evening by the delightful and precocious Lily Ramras; also played on alternate nights by Eowyn Young), and son, Michael Banks (played with spunky energy by Asher Navisky; also played on alternate nights by Cameron Levesque). Their house is in trouble, as yet another nanny leaves, and housekeeper Mrs. Brill (played with pitch-perfect humor by Beth Gotha) and her assistant Robertson Ay (played with goofy affability by Pablo Torres) have their work cut out for them to keep “order and precision” for Mr. Banks. In swoops everyone’s favorite nanny, Mary Poppins (played by the subdued but often radiant Lisa Yuen).
Yuen is a surprise as Mary Poppins. On opening night, her performance was often subdued and matter-of-fact. Her moments of brilliant charm were measured, creating a “So there” moment in their minimalism. Mary Poppins feels like a “know-it-all,” but Yuen makes her relatable and consistently on-point. Her “Practically Perfect” is when the production first hits its stride, as the sound of Yuen’s clear soprano fill the Wheelock Family Theatre, and we are transported to a world of magic and surprise by the strong direction of Russell Garrett. From a lamp appearing from a bottom-less bag to set pieces and other props moving across the bedroom, Mary Poppins and Wheelock Family Theatre make magic happen all around us. They continue this surprising attention to detail in “A Spoonful of Sugar,” making an entire room seem to fall apart, only to be repaired moments later by Mary Poppins before our eyes. But Director Garrett never loses sight of the importance of the musical, which is in finding magic within us, and his direction always balances the spectacle with the talented singing and acting (and dancing!). He recognizes that Co-Creator Cameron Mackintosh expanded the original movie’s plot in the musical with extra attention to George and Winifred Banks, including introducing George’s “brimstone and treacle” nanny, Miss Andrew (played with delicious camp and conviction by Shana Dirik); the bank tellers and managers (with a notable tender scene between Giordano and Andrew Winans); and many solos and duets about George and Winifred finding themselves and their children again.
Wheelock Family Theatre assembles a top-shelf of ensemble and supporting talents. From Gamalia Pharm’s tender and imploring “Feed the Birds” as the Birdwoman to Shana Dirik’s triumphant and determined “Brimstone and Treacle” as Miss Andrew (both of whom almost bring down the house in their moments of glory) to Andrew Winans’ delightfully playful and exuberant Neleus (whose fancy footwork is well-supported by his memorable chemistry with both Ramras’ Lily and Navisky’s Michael), the main story of a nanny who teaches us to find magic and love all around us is expanded upon by this committed cast of supporting players. The ensemble continues this success with its dedicated and lively performances, especially in show-stopping musical numbers, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (don’t wait for the penguins, but stay for the brilliant choreography by Garrett and his tight ensemble, lead by Dance Captain Katie Anne Clark) and “Step in Time” (the musical number that actually stopped the show on opening night with boisterous clapping and enthusiasm). In both numbers, the ensemble fill the space with its high-kicking, excited dancing and lively personalities. While on opening night, the ensemble seemed to hold back, almost afraid to perform fully because of the technical feats around them (including flying Bert and Mary Poppins across the stage) or because of the demanding choreography. Regardless, with additional time and practice, these musical numbers are worth the price of admission alone. Additionally, Costume Designer Elisabetta Polito brings her usual flair to this timeless tale, creating period-appropriate costumes with extra zing in color or pattern to make the dull and drab London seem delightful.
My biggest concerns were with Reardon’s Bert and DeGiacomo’s Winifred, both of whom are given substantial stage-time, especially compared with the original. Reardon never dazzles as our narrator, and I struggled to find his relationship or purpose in telling us the story of Mary Poppins. Director Garrett tries to clarify Reardon’s Bert’s relationship with Yuen’s Mary Poppins, but, whether the source material or the actor, the moments fall flat, and Bert’s songs feel like musical filler and transition music rather than furthering the plot or developing his one-dimensional character. Likewise, DeGiacomo’s Winifred feels out of her element as the young matriarch; almost too young, DeGiacomo feels like an ingénue that wants to find herself through a mezzo-belt song rather than sing about how her life has passed her by and she is alone as a powerless mother in a rich man’s world. Neither role makes or breaks the entire show, but it did pause the action at times, detracting from the momentum of the talented Ramras’ Jane, Navisky’s Michael, Giordano’s George, and Yuen’s Mary Poppins. While both Giordano and Yuen made unconventional choices for their characters, both actors seemed committed to finding moments to shine, through bark and bite or a dazzling smile, to reinforce our understanding of their characters.
Wheelock Family Theatre’s Mary Poppins had much to praise, even on opening night with some sluggish scene changes, from its careful and precise direction and choreography by Russell Garrett to the aware and smart performances by many leading and supporting actors, to the lively and applause-worthy ensemble. I wish that I had not seen it opening night because so many things just needed the weekend of performances to work themselves to their theatrical apex. If you have a family who needs a little magic this winter season, if you are a lover of Disney and its wholesome and memorable themes, and if you like supporting live and inclusive theatre, buy your tickets now before word gets out about the most popular nanny in town.