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Theater Review: Mary Poppins

PC: Jack Grace
Revisiting “Mary Poppins” is like putting on a pair of warm slippers. To my shame, I’ve never read P.L. Travers original novel but the 1964 Disney film version was a constant presence in my childhood. My father used to project film reels of scenes from the landmark Julie Andrews/ Dick Van Dyke musical in our living room. He also revealed that, once the film was available for purchase on videocassette (at the price of $89.99!), it inspired him to buy a VCR. Ah, the 80’s. Anyway, I digress. The Alexis Dascoulias-directed production at The Historic Iao Theater is full of familiar characters that will strike many as old friends from their youth, and songs that you can’t help but sing along to. The story is truly magical and so is the production.

Sara Jelley plays the title character, a no-nonsense, fastidious and entirely magical nanny who takes care of Jane and Michael Banks (played by Puakenikeni Kepler and Robert Browning, both delightful). Poppins is employed by the rigid Mr. Banks (Francis Taua), whose banking career is in shaky ground. Along with her friend Bert (Chris Kepler), a jolly chimney sweeper/street artist, Poppins exposes Jane and Michael to London’s working class and less fortunate (particularly The Bird Woman, movingly played by Beth Garrow). While the Banks children learn to connect with imaginations, the Banks grown-ups realize they’ve been missing out on playing with their kids.

Dascoulias inspires great work from her large cast and keeps the pace tight. At nearly three hours, the show is long but the first act flies by and the second is equally brisk and full of highlights.

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PC: Jack Grace

Although the two leads have a striking resemblance to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, they both find subtle but effective ways of making the roles their own. Jelley is a dazzler with a powerful voice and a strong stage presence, conveying the delicious and mysterious qualities of her character. She plays the character as less rosy than Andrews and more pleasingly peculiar.

Kepler, the multi-talented drama teacher/director at King Kekaulike High School, is simply extraordinary as Bert. He embodies the character with great physicality and displays the energy and playfulness of a true pro. He also does Van Dyke one better with the accent: whereas Van Dyke’s “allo guvnah!” cockney can be distracting, Kepler sounds more like George Harrison than someone struggling to nail a tricky dialect.

Taua gives the stern, stuffy Mr. Banks depth and gravity, nailing the sadness and gradual joy in the role. Winifred Banks is a character that could fade into the background of such a busy show but Lisa Paulson gives the role a tenderness that stands out. Lee Garrow, once again, plays a crotchety, wealthy old coot and makes it feel definitive. Wendy Swee and Rueben Carrion make a fun comic duo who oversee the Banks household. Carrion, in particular, embraces his inner Jerry Lewis and pulls off an impressive bit of slapstick.

There’s an odd and amusing subplot that pops up in the second act: we’re introduced to Miss Andrew, the anti-Poppins, played by a very funny Marsi Smith. The nanny vs. nanny showdown is a welcome bit of camp.

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PC: Jack Grace

It’s a struggle to single out all the great performances in the expansive cast (with many actors in multiple roles). Almost as difficult is to pin point the songs that soar the highest. “Feed the Birds” is especially haunting and chicken-skin inducing, and the rousing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” gets a real workout. The number everyone will be talking about is “Step In Time,” which is among the most thrilling dance sequences I’ve ever seen at The Historic Iao Theater.

The charming, towering sets by Caro Walker resemble storybook illustrations and the excellent, foot stomping choreography is by Erin Kowalick. To put it mildly, the costumes by Vicki, Roxi and Jessica Nelson are astonishing. Whether exuding Londoners or living toys, the outfits adorned by the actors are rich in color and detail. Also noteworthy is the use of old school stage trickery to convey Poppins’ magical touch (the bit with the paper going up the chimney charmed my socks off).

Although the stage adaptation is respectfully streamlined from the source material and faithful in tone and narrative, there are interesting changes. Since tap dancing penguins and a room of laughing/levitating people are out of the question, necessary alterations have been made. The play book by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes (yes, I wrote that detail to impress my wife) allows new additions that don’t detract but allow for more inventive staging and eye candy stage pictures. There’s a few new songs and visually arresting sequences involving statues coming to life and a shop that sells words. The former sequence features the always wonderful Dale Button, in arguably his most outrageous on-stage appearance yet (I’m sounding like a broken record, as he’s a game, maverick performer who never shies away from drastically altering his appearance). The only number I missed from the movie is the hearty “Sister Suffragette,” which, come to think of it, was fairly heavy stuff for a movie with dancing umbrellas.

This is a big, complex show, with the actors giving their performances and dance numbers everything they’ve got. “Mary Poppins” is about teaching both children and their parents empathy and how important it is for adults to partake in their children’s joy of discovery. Here’s a show parents will want to share with their kids, while children at heart will adore this from start to finish.

Mary Poppins plays at The Historic Iao Theater from November 25th-December 11th. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.

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