A heaping "spoonful of sugar" is ladled out in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's engaging family entertainment production of Disney's and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins, closing this weekend's successful extended run under Geoffrey Sherman's direction.
In reprising the title role, Alice Sherman's voice is in top shape as she confidently leads the large ensemble or delivers solo pieces with seeming ease, but it is her portrayal of Mary -- a no nonsense but craftily likable disciplinarian of Jane [Olivia Laine Scott] and Michael [Noah Henninger], her two rambunctious charges who have successfully sabotaged every other Nanny they've had -- that is especially notable. Her 2014 performance was charming, no doubt; but this time, Mary has taken on more depth in her understanding of the children's needs, her not-quite-romantic relationship with Bert [Bret Shuford], and her support of Winifred Banks' [Jean McCormick] emerging self-awareness as an equal partner with banker husband George [David Schmittou]. In short, this more mature Mary Poppins adds another level to our response to her; she is still charming, but is made an admirable role model.
When the Banks children successfully run off their latest nanny and write their own job description for a successor , Mary Poppins mysteriously arrives on the scene and proceeds to both entertain and discipline them; they can have fun, but must abide by certain rules. -- And while their father measures success as family provider in material terms, he too must learn the value of loving them, the quality that his wife and children all long for, especially young Michael who craves one-on-one father-son time with him.
The household servants -- the not so proficient cook Mrs. Brill [Toni DiBuono], and bumbling but earnest Robertson Ay [Billy Sharpe] -- add some high quality humor to the proceedings; Janelle A. Robinson renders two striking turns as Mrs. Corry and the "holy terror" nanny Miss Andrew. Her "Brimstone and Treacle" is a show-stopper.
When Mr. Banks almost loses his job by deciding to lend money to a "good" man rather than a shyster, he learns the difference between the value of a thing and its worth. When Mrs. Banks comes to his rescue after recognizing her own worth in "Being Mrs. Banks", she finds that the Bank Chairman [Paul Hebron] has already rewarded her husband for making the right choice in the first place.
Though Mary Poppins teaches several lessons to the children and the adults, the Bird Woman in the Park [Barbara Broughton] hits home with her sensitive treatment of "Feed the Birds", showing to one and all that a mere "tuppence a bag" for food for God's smallest creatures is a gift of far greater value. It is the little things -- small gestures that get no notice -- that mean the most. And Mr. Banks' finally flying a kite with his son seals their relationship.
There are quite a few production numbers that garner audience enthusiasm: "Step in Time", "A Spoonful of Sugar", and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" fit the bill, even in somewhat restrained choreographed staging.
Sets by Peter Hicks are detailed, flexible, and ingenious is differentiating between the natural Edwardian house and the technicolor dream-like quality of the Park; Brenda Van Der Weil creates costumes that also give period detail and fantasy crayola vibrancy.
Mr. Shuford's Bert -- the sometime narrator, sometime magician, sometime cohort of Mary Poppins -- is ever likable as he guides the children and the audience into Mary Poppins' delightful world. -- The lessons they teach are worth remembering; but Mary Poppins can only stay with the Banks family till she is no longer needed, and when they have all learned her lessons, they must be left to carry on without her.
When she leaves -- upraised umbrella carrying her over the heads of the audience -- we are all the better for having spent some time with her. She is, after all, "Practically Perfect".