Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"Poppins" Pops In the Little Theatre

By Dan Hagen
One night in Australia in 1909, with rain swelling a nearby creek, 10-year-old Helen Goff’s widowed mother told the girl to take care of her two younger siblings. Mother was going to drown herself, she explained. And then she walked out into the storm.
Terrified, Helen gathered the children on the rug in front of the fire and made up a story about a magical flying horse — a perfect symbol of escape — to distract them. Unsuccessful in her suicide attempt, Helen’s mother returned later, but her daughter never trusted her again. 
Helen grew up to wear trousers, engage in various unorthodox relationships and become an author. She changed her name to P.L. Travers and wrote famous stories about a no-nonsense, supernatural protector of children whose parents had failed them.
Which makes sense, doesn’t it?
And now you can see that character soar — literally — across the Little Theatre stage as the first offering in Executive Director John Stephens’ most family-friendly season yet.
Colleen Johnson as the uncanny nanny Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins, directed and choreographed by Amber Mak, is a musical drawn from both the original stories and the famous Disney film.
Mak’s dance numbers really dazzle in a couple of places, notably the angular sign language of the  Supercalifragisticexpialidocious number and sunset-rooftop romp Step in Time. Brady Miller and Daniel Gold (as a surprisingly limber park statue) have standout dance moments.
Several of the show’s scenes are carried by strong but minor characters — among them Tim Mason as a just-fatuous-enough bank chairman, the brassy Kendra Lynn Lucas as the owner of a “Talking Shop” and Therese Kincaid as the cook Mrs. Brill. Kincade gets laughs without half trying.
The masterful Ann Borders, a Millikin University professor, is especially delicious as the anti-Mary Poppins, Miss Andrews, the evil nanny who warped poor Mr. Banks in childhood (apparently nannies are responsible for everything that happens in this version of Victorian England).
The idea of giving the seemingly omnipotent Mary Poppins a formidable antagonist is a good one, and Borders plays it with assurance and the authority of a whipcrack.
The vivacious Jordan Cyphert, a musical theatre graduate from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, plays Bert, the Dick Van Dyke chimney sweep role. He has a lot to do in this show and looks happy doing it. My friend Bart Rettberg pointed out that Bert fulfills the same ambiguous and ubiquitous function in this show that Che does in Evita — as a male character who is intrigued by the central female figure, and thereby spotlights her.
The Banks children — Gideon Johnson and Zoe Bowers — are charming without being cloying (a neat trick). And their parents, played by Hillary Marren and George Keating, are really the only fully human personalities in the show.
Because the parents are surrounded by fantasy figures, the emotional weight of the show, such as it is, falls on them. Marren projects an appealing empathy and I was especially impressed by Keating’s mixture of authoritarianism, pain and vulnerability. I kept thinking he reminded me of someone, and I just realized who it is. The actor Gary Oldman.
Effingham native Colleen Johnson is as sweet and crisp as an autumn apple in the rather thankless title role. Why “thankless?” It occurred to me while watching the show how difficult the part of Poppins must be to play. The uncanny nanny is more a force than a character, more an attitude than a personality. But Johnson carries it off with no-nonsense charm.
People always expect to see the sunny Julie Andrews character now, but the original literary Mary Poppins had more of an edge, an almost sinister, dreamlike quality.
To give you some idea of just how chilly an east wind Travers wanted to hear whistling through her idea of a Mary Poppins musical, I would just point out that she asked Sondheim to write it.
Incidental intelligence: Mary Poppins, a musical with music and lyrics by the Sherman Brothers (with additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) and a script by Julian Fellowes, runs through June 14 at the Little Theatre.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, costume coordination by Jeannine La Bate, scenic design by Daniel Mueller, stage management by Jeremy J. Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The cast includes Sara Reinecke, Danielle Davila, Marty Harbaugh, Corbin Williams, Collin O’Connor, Megan Farley, Danielle Jackman, Emily Bacino-Althaus, Claire Kapustka, Collin Sanderson and David Davis.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

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