Music Theatre of Wichita’s ‘Mary Poppins’ brings out the kid in all of us

08/10/2013 1:37 PM

08/10/2013 1:37 PM

“Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical” is a big, bright, bouncy surprise that blends the breezy magic of the 1964 Disney film with the darker, more dramatic tones of the original P.J. Travers books about a turn-of-the-century family in dire need of a “practically perfect” nanny.

And this super – OK, OK “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius” – production, which caps the 42nd season for Music Theatre of Wichita, cheers and enthralls the kid in all of us with its colorful, whimsical imagination that involves park statues and toys springing to life to teach life lessons along with an umbrella-powered nanny and a lucky, roof-hopping chimney sweep.

But it also touches our hearts in a satisfying way that the film often glossed over in favor of surface fun. The story, as Travers meant it, is about a family in real danger of falling apart rather than just suffering from bratty kids.

Directed with exuberant flair but an underlying emotional sensitivity to the subtler themes by MTW’s Wayne Bryan, this show is a regional premiere and one of only eight productions this year licensed by Disney and legendary producer Cameron MacIntosh (the Broadway version just closed in March after six years).

Bryan, with considerable help from choreographer Linda Goodrich and solid underlying support from music director Thomas W. Douglas, really stepped up the familiar production numbers, from “Jolly Holiday” to “Step in Time.” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius” was always a show-stopper in the film, but on stage it has become almost a show-within-a-show.

Delightful new verses have been seamlessly added to the Sherman brothers’ clever original ditty by the team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and a sort of “YMCA” sign language has been added to bring the individual letters to complex, choreographed life – all performed in spot-on unison by everybody on stage. You feel yourself wanting to jump up and join in the fun.

Lindsey Bliven, an MTW alumna who toured with “Mary Poppins” for a year and a half, has a supremely assured demeanor that’s just perfect as the practically perfect Mary. She’s precise without being snippy, determined without being bossy, loving without being schmaltzy. Bliven’s singing is just as clear and precise with a lovely lilt for leading her charges through songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar” and the hauntingly lovely “Feed the Birds.”

David Elder, remembered for his rapid-fire tapping in last season’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” puts those dancin’ shoes to good use again as Bert, the lanky, loose-limbed chimney sweep, for a rousing “Step in Time” finale that takes us over the rooftops of London with some high-flying (literally) footwork.

Bert’s role has also been expanded to narrator, making him a more pivotal character as a jack-of-all-trades who fits in wherever he goes and explains Mary’s actions because she never feels the need to explain herself. Elder has a big, broad smile that draws us into the wonder of this show. He makes a good fantasy ambassador.

Londen Peebler as Jane and Edward Sturm as Michael are remarkable as the troubled kids that Mary arrives to guide. The roles have been expanded from the film, and young Londen and Edward are terrific singers and dancers who can hold their own with any of the adults in the cast. Even better, they’re smart and likable rather than precocious.

Damon Kirsche (“Spamalot” earlier this season) and Clair Gerig (“Les Miserables” this season) play the kids’ parents, George and Winifred Banks. Kirsche has a rich, deep baritone that gives him the authority of a proper Victorian father. That voice also gives emotional punch to his lament “A Man Has Dreams” about his seeming failures.

Gerig, who will be a senior at Wichita State this fall, has a powerhouse soprano that does nice things with the new song “Being Mrs. Banks,” about wanting to be more than a trophy wife to a successful husband.

Longtime local favorite Karen Robu steals the show as a nightmarish nanny named Miss Andrew, who could be a cousin to the Wicked Witch of the West. She doesn’t quite cackle, but her voice thunders deliciously through the new “Brimstone and Treacle” as a warning to how she disciplines naughty children. Fortunately, Robu also gets a chance to show her nice side as the charming Bird Lady (“Feed the Birds”).

And Katie Banks puts her best, bustling, comic foot forward as the Bankses’ long-suffering cook, Mrs. Brill, while Elliott Mattox is a bumbling delight as their inept handyman, Robertson.

The costumes by George T. Mitchell (“Disney’s The Little Mermaid”) are exquisitely tailored Victorian fashions with bustles and corsets that explode with color in dance sequences, notably “Jolly Holiday,” which is all brilliant sherbet shades of tangerine, lime, lemon and turquoise.

The set by longtime collaborator J. Branson from Chicago gives the appearance of the Bankses living in a watercolor illustration. The house’s details are just realistic enough to seem substantial, but airy and pastel to take us on whimsical flights of fancy. Absolutely beautiful!

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