One way to determine how well a family-friendly musical succeeds is to count the number of spellbound, wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares it elicits from young theatergoers. By that crude but effective measure, and many others besides, Artpark’s big, brash and energetic production of Disney’s “Mary Poppins” has to be considered a soaring success.
Across nearly three hours that felt like two, theatergoers witnessed one of the tightest and expertly paced productions to have graced the Artpark stage in recent memory. The show also features an excellent cast, led by the irresistible Emilie Renier in the title role, John Barsoian as lovable jack-of-all-trades Bert and the perfectly cast Samuel Fesmire and Jessica Riloff as Mary Poppins’ young charges.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that “Mary Poppins” is Disney’s best musical not titled “The Lion King.” In a way that few Disney shows have been able to accomplish before or since, this 2004 production talks to kids without talking down to them and embraces the melancholy, menacing and minor-key elements necessary for a truly good kids’ story to remain lodged in theater fans’ memories for decades to come. (By many accounts, the 2006 Broadway production brightened the tone of the musical a few too many shades, and producers added the darker elements back in for the tour and subsequent productions.)
Artpark’s annual musical theater productions are strange animals. In the past, their notoriously short rehearsal periods of just over two weeks and criminally short run of just eight shows have made me question whether all that breathless effort was worth it. The shows typically feature enormous casts, complicated choreography and potentially tricky technical elements, challenges that have resulted in more than a few creaky opening nights.
But in this production, it’s clear that Artpark and its frequent director Randall Kramer, have finally whittled the process down to its most crucial elements. Each of the show’s elaborate dance numbers, choreographed by Anne Beck, were joys to behold. From the Technicolor fantasy of “Jolly Holiday,” in which the statues of London park come to life, to the whiplash-inducing choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and the act one closer “Chim Chiminey,” the show’s big splashes of personality and color were as astounding as you could want them to be.
But the smaller stuff also worked almost seamlessly: The chemistry between Renier and Barsoian, both extraordinarily talented, was real enough to make you wonder what might be going on backstage. As the perpetually worried Mrs. Banks, Debbie Pappas is perfect opposite Paschal Frisina’s slightly overdone Mr. Banks.
And it was impossible to ignore young Samuel Fesmire, whose enthusiastic portrayal of Michael Banks seems to bode well for a long career in the theater. Among other memorable moments, he brought the house down with a pitch-perfect delivery of the following declaration about Miss Andrew, the terrible nanny played expertly by Loraine O’Donnell: “She looks like something that would eat its young.”
That dark but funny line is one of countless examples of a peculiar strain of British melancholy and fairy-tale menace that runs through the show and which reaches its most disturbing point during a dream ballet in which the children’s toys come alive to torment them. But that menace, always punctuated by surprising bits of magic that reliably produce those wide-eyed looks from young theatergoers, never overwhelms the show’s optimistic sensibility.
And though the musical is ostensibly for kids, it is also a surprisingly smart commentary on abandoned dreams, the downsides of profit-mongering, the devaluation of creativity that comes with age, the failures of memory and, finally, the power of the imagination to correct all those problems.
Seriously. It’s all there, in a place as unexpected as “Mary Poppins.” And in this fine production, it all shines.