Wind Commander

Arts-3PoppinsCabrillo Stage rises to the challenge of ‘Mary Poppins’

Don’t expect a literal adaptation of the Walt Disney movie at the new Cabrillo Stage production of Mary Poppins (the Broadway Musical). This second offering of the CS summer musical season originally debuted in London’s West End in 2004 and transferred to Broadway in 2006. It’s an interesting hybrid that combines many of the beloved Sherman Brothers songs from the Disney film with new songs written for this show, along with several scenes and incidents inspired by the original series of P. L. Travers’ novels which were not in the Disney movie.

Results are mixed, in terms of the property itself. New songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe don’t always measure up (or maybe we’re just not as familiar with them), and the new narrative (book by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) has its ups and downs. It’s also a challenging vehicle for regional theatre, with many fanciful sets, tricky stage illusions and flying effects. But the CS cast and crew mostly rises to the challenge with another typically enthusiastic production.

Directed and choreographed by CS veteran Janie Scott, with her usual verve, the show boasts strong voices and excellent dancing. An overall sense of magic and wonder prevails, from Skip Epperson’s dynamic set (which transforms into several locales—Edwardian parlor, kitchen and nursery, forested park, bank office, the rooftops of London), and Maria Crush’s fun, fanciful period costumes, to a variety of special effects that went off pretty smoothly on opening night. Still, the staging could use a little work to create momentum and overcome some hiccups in the narrative.

The show begins on a haunting note with Bert, the chimney-sweep and unofficial master of ceremonies, singing a wistful refrain from “Chim Chim Cher-ee” to introduce the story. Griffeth Whitehurst is wonderful as Bert, with his easygoing stage presence, and accomplished singing and dancing. We look forward to his every entrance onstage, knowing we’re in good hands. Even when a mighty crash was heard from backstage on opening night, while Whitehurst was onstage alone, he never missed a beat.

Bert introduces the Banks family—father George (Geoffrey Ward), whose bank job keeps him too busy for his kids, and wife Winifred (Marlene Berner), a housewife with little to do (not the spirited suffragette of the film). Their children, Jane (winsome Stoli Wolfgang) and Michael (plucky Kalen Ramirez) have just chased off another governess, and while George insists they need to hire a stricter nanny, the kids compose their own want ad—which magically conjures Mary Poppins, flying in on the East Wind.

Emily Marsilia plays the miraculous nanny with efficient aplomb, reconciling the distracted parents to their playful children, while leading the kids on magical adventures. Most of them feature the classic movie songs (“Jolly Holiday,” “A Spoonful of Sugar”), but in reinvented settings. (“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” takes place in a “Talking Shop” in the park, where letters are exchanged to make new words.) But the lyrical “Feed the Birds,” oddly reassembled so that the introductory verse comes in the middle of the song, lost its delicacy on opening night when Bird Woman Mindy Pedlar’s lovely voice was all but drowned out by the orchestra.

On the other hand, the boisterous “Step In Time,” featuring Bert and an army of sweeps dancing across the London rooftops is a real showstopper. (Whitehurst’s intrepid Bert even dances up a wall and across the ceiling—upside down!) Few of the new songs have the same oomph (especially those about the domestic travails of George and Winifred—which Fellowes book belabors—despite the effective playing and singing of Ward and Berner), although Poppins’ manifesto, “Practically Perfect,” captures the right attitude from the books. And fresh new scenes feature a statue come to life in the park (beautifully played and danced by Mike Saenz), and children’s toys grown life-sized and animated.

Indeed, there’s so much going on (adorable dancing penguins, a destroyed kitchen that magically fixes itself, a charming trip to the stars), the audience often has to wait a long time between scenes while things are set up. But live theatre is all about working out the kinks, and these issues may soon be resolved in this ambitious, often engaging production.

The Cabrillo Stage production of Mary Poppins plays through Aug. 16 at the Crocker Theater, Cabrillo College. For more information call 479-6429, or visit SPOONFUL OF ACTING Emily Marsilia (Mary Poppins), Kalen Ramirez (Michael Banks) and Stoli Wolfgang (Jane Banks) in the Cabrillo Stage production of ‘Mary Poppins.’ PHOTO: COURTESY OF CABRILLO STAGE

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