"Look past what you see" is an admonition everyone might benefit from; what is on the surface is only a small portion of what lies beneath -- and Montgomery is being treated to a glorious heart-warming production of Mary Poppins, a musical that charms and transforms its audiences young and old. As Mary Poppins sings of herself in Act I, Director Geoffrey Sherman's production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is "Practically Perfect".
With top-notch production numbers choreographed by Karen Azenberg, an excellent eight-member pit orchestra conducted by Tom Griffin, dazzling sets by Peter Hicks, and exquisite costumes by Brenda Van Der Weil, Mr. Sherman's ensemble cast of triple threat actors-singers-dancers energetically take the Festival stage for two-and-a-half hours of non stop family entertainment.
This is "what we see", but there is a lot more to it. -- The play's pedigree begins with P. L. Travers' stories and continues to the beloved Walt Disney film and the Cameron Macintosh stage musical with a book by Julian Fellowes (of "Downton Abbey" fame); the original musical score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe complete the collaboration that is currently playing an extended run at ASF.
Below the surface shine of this production are a host of elements that might not receive the attention they deserve. -- The aforementioned production qualities [sets and costumes especially] are so integrated into the magic that they seamlessly enhance the story and characters in witty and colorful ways by paying attention to details. Some of the stage transformations are downright stunning, and with an ensemble cast who play gypsies, chimney-sweeps, bank managers, and other Londoners, one might think there are hundreds of them...more magic.
The story s a familiar one: George [David Schmittou] and Winifred [Jean McCormick] Banks -- he a stolid bank manager and she a dutiful Edwardian housewife -- have two children, Jane and Michael [Katie Cobb and Will Chieves on Tuesday night] who have run off several nannies through their pranks; they crave more affection from their parents -- particularly Mr. Banks who is oblivious to their needs -- and when they write a job description for a nanny who will be kind and "fun", Mary Poppins [Alice Sherman] magically shows up and effects the needed changes. -- Yet, not everything is what it seems; you have to look past what you see, and Mary Poppins makes the changes happen with the help of chimney sweep Bert [Bret Shuford] and an assortment of other characters she seems to conjure up with ease.
The ASF company have taken full advantage of the strong script to develop truthful characterizations. Though many of them have the stamp of stereotype, the actors provide subtle details that give credibility to them. -- Barbara Tirrell plays both the gypsy Mrs. Corry and the stentorian nanny Miss Andrew (known to everyone as "The Holy Terror") with gusto; both powerful performances, and her rendition of "Brimstone and Treacle" is frighteningly good. Billy Sharpe as Robertson Ay, the meek household servant, and Northbrook, an unassuming man who gets a bank loan because of his good will -- as opposed to the aggressive Von Hussler (Lenny Daniel) -- is underplayed to very subtle effect. Christian Castro as Neleus (the statue that comes to life to the children's delight) keeps the magic intact. Rodney Clark doubles as the Admiral and the tough-minded Bank Manager with clever nuances. And Barbara Broughton shines as Bird Woman who sells crumbs to feed the birds in a touching interpretation of "Tuppence a Bag" makes a powerful statement about simple kindness that is so often trumped by selfishness.
Mr. Shmittou and Ms. McCormick, in roles that have been developed from the original, create convincing characters -- conflicted by their call to duty as parents while staying true to the social norms expected of them -- and emerge as fully realized and sympathetic individuals. And Ms. Cobb and Mr. Chieves are impressive as their children who never flag from being truthful in their roles; well done.
Mr. Shuford's chimney-sweep "Bert" is so genuinely honest and endearing that we instantly feel comfortable with him as our guide to the proceedings. And Ms. Sherman's portrayal of the title character Mary Poppins is "practically perfect" in every sense. She commands the stage with effortless charm, conducts the action at every turn, and sings beautifully. A standout performance.
The big numbers are all dazzling. Whatever your preference, "Chim Chim Cheree", "Let's Go Fly a Kite", "Step in Time", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Anything Can Happen", or "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", are bound to enthrall.
And, while Mary Poppins can only stay "as long as necessary", when she does leave after resolving the family's problems and ensuring that young Michael received his father's love, and we are ensured that other families need her now, we watch her (with a little regret that she can't stay with us any longer) fly out over the audience and on to another challenge.