Theater review : Life’s a jolly holiday with Zach Theatre’s ‘Mary Poppins’

 

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)

 

The story of P. L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” is best known to the American public through the classic 1964 Disney film adaptation starring Julie Andrews. Several generations of children have now been exposed to the film, with its litany of catchy and moving songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and it seemed like a no-brainer in 2004 for Disney to continue its streak of successful stage adaptations of their films by bringing “Mary Poppins”to the West End of London.

The show has since become a favorite of regional theaters, given its nostalgic appeal to adults and broad, cheery playfulness that speaks to children.

Austin’s Zach Theatre is the latest to produce “Mary Poppins” and director Dave Steakley’s magical production (running through Sept. 4t) does the story justice.

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Zach Theatre’s “Mary Poppins.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

 

The “Mary Poppins” cast is one of the most talented assembled in recent Austin musical theater history. Jill Blackwood, as magical/angelical nanny Mary, and Matthew Redden, as sometimes-street artist/sometimes-chimney sweep Bert, headline the show with such earnest, friendly energy that you can’t help but smile whenever they’re on stage.

The shining jewels of this production, though, are the remarkable young performers playing Mary’s charges, Jane and Michael Banks. Anderson Zoll, as Michael, is equally adept at evoking compassion for a boy who has been emotionally abandoned by his father as he is at charming us with his own infectious glee. Scarlet Craig, as Jane, is a huge star in the making, stealing and effortlessly commanding every scene she is in. Though the show enchants at all times, it is at its most delightful whenever these two are on stage.

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Michelle Alexander, Anderson Zoll and Scarlet Craig in Zach Theatre’s “Mary Poppins.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

The other secret strength of Zach’s “Mary Poppins” is its ensemble. Led by Blackwood and Redden, the big dance numbers – like the candy-colored “Jolly Holiday,” the tap-dance-themed “Step In Time,” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – are staggeringly brilliant, and as strong as anything on stage this side of rapping founding fathers.

Choreographer Robin Lewis and musical director Allen Robertson deserve equal praise for these scenes, as song, dance, and music weave together in them seamlessly.

The weaknesses of the show come mainly from the play, itself. The subject matter of “Mary Poppins” is, in one sense, somewhat dated, rooted as it is in 1930s British working culture, but it does make a sentimental, if trite, point about putting family before work. While Julian Fellowes’ book expands on the surrealist playfulness of both the movie and Travers’ original stories, the new songs added by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe simply pale in comparasion to the Sherman Brothers classics.

In the end, though, these small flaws seem hardly noticeable, as Zach’s “Mary Poppins” s reminds audience members of all ages that you don’t need to be a child to believe that true theatrical magic is possible.

 

Zach Theatre’s "Mary Poppins." Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Zach Theatre’s “Mary Poppins.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.


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