The University of Rhode Island Department of Theatre is bringing its 2017-18 season to a close with a spectacularly sugary – and “practically perfect” – production of “Mary Poppins.” The updated stage version retains the wonder and whimsy of the beloved 1964 Disney film while adding new content from the original P. L. Travers book series. The 2006 musical version has been re-calibrated with more dimension and variety for adults, but enough silliness and magic to keep the kids entertained.
Although the well-known story of Mary Poppins requires little exposition here, there’s a surprising amount of new material in this musical, as well as updated thematic emphasis that should draw in grown-ups as much as the kids. Originating in London’s West End in 2006, Disney and co-creator Cameron Macintosh have kept many of Richard and Robert Sherman’s iconic songs from the film (“Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”), but add new music and lyrics from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Perhaps most striking is a plot makeover by none other than Julian Fellowes (of “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey” fame). Fellowes attempts to deepen the story to center around Mr. Banks, a wealthy middle-aged man in crisis coming to terms with his place in the world. The story of a lonely and dysfunctional family in need of intervention is viewed through the lens of Mr. Banks and his wife, children, domestic staff, and – of course – the magical nanny who makes her way to their household.
URI Theatre’s production follows in the footsteps of other lavishly-produced musicals at the Robert E. Will Theatre, most recently “Spring Awakening,” “Legally Blonde” and “Avenue Q.” Once again under the direction of URI Theatre Department Chair Paula McGlasson, “Mary Poppins” is buoyed by an expansive cast and crew and dazzling technical and production values. Cheryl deWardener’s larger-than-life scenic design features a rotating two-story set on wheels that transports the audience in and around the Banks’ household on Cherry Tree Lane. Most impressive are the high-flying scenes that take characters up the chimney and out onto London’s rooftops.
Costume design by David T. Howard is no less impressive. This is a colorful cast of over 40 performers, many of whom have multiple rapid costume changes. Howard’s costumes provide a striking visual contrast between the drawing rooms, streets and board rooms of Victorian London and the enchanted worlds that Mary Poppins unfurls for the Banks children. And no discussion about the production would be complete without mentioning the well-executed theatrical flying effects provided by the company Flying by Foy, which generated appreciative gasps and applause every time they were deployed.
While the technical aspects of the production will not disappoint, URI’s “Mary Poppins” lives and breathes off of the energy of a deep and talented cast of performers. New and updated ensemble numbers are especially sizzling, owing a great deal to Lila Kane’s musical direction and choreography by Nicole Chagnon.
Emily Turtle – coming off a recent performance in the title role of URI’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” – shows off her song and dance talent as the iconic Mary Poppins. Perhaps inevitably, her characterization retains just a hint of Julie Andrew, but Turtle more than succeeds in making the role her own. With a beautifully strong and crisp singing voice, Turtle carries the show while capturing both Mary Poppins’ accessible charm, as well as the impenetrable mystery that surrounds her.
Turtle’s energy is matched in spades by Brooks Shatraw in the storyteller role of Bert (made famous in the movie by Dick Van Dyke). Shatraw’s overabundant talent has been difficult to contain in recent smaller roles, so it is a treat to see him win over the audience with both his charisma and a knockout signing voice. He has great chemistry with Mary Poppins and the kids, but also manages to make the many reprises of the famous “Chim Chim Cher-ee” engaging and unique every time.
Turtle and Shatraw are well supported by a talented cast and ensemble. Zachary Simpkins and Peace Dale’s own Kate Rocchio are “spit spot” as the Banks children, Michael and Jane. Their parents, Mr. George Banks and Mrs. Winifred Banks, are given sharpened focus in Fellowes’ updated book. Narragansett’s Jake Edward Clarke and Wakefield’s Maggie Papa enjoy a number of poignant moments, bringing this subplot to life, particularly the tender second act duet “Good for Nothing/Being Mrs. Banks,” which gets to the heart of their family and marital struggles. The versatile and vivacious Ardemis Kassabian lights up a number of ensemble pieces, but shines in the role of Mrs. Corry in the famous first act showstopper “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Valerie Ferris and her powerful and emotional voice are particularly memorable as the Bird Lady in “Feed the Birds.” Lauren Jannetti steals a few scenes as Mr. Banks’ old nanny, Miss Andrew, livening up the second act. Turtle and Jannetti have a lot of fun with their dueling reprise of “Brimstone and Treacle.”
Clocking in at around 2½ hours, the URI Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” is a bit of a hefty length for a family production. However, the show is filled to the brim with sorcery and spectacle to keep the attention of the little ones. The long first act – which has its ups and downs – pays off with a brisk and high-tempo closing act. The surprise tap dance extravaganza, “Step in Time,” alone is a showstopper worth the price of admission. This is a show that is determined to please, weaving enough whimsy and imagination into a modern and wistful tale of family domestic dysfunction to satisfy all comers, as evidenced by the enthusiastic standing ovation showered upon the opening night performance.
For information about showtimes and tickets, visit uri.edu/theatre/current-season.
For information on showtimes and tickets, see Happenings, Page C4.