Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"Mary Poppins"

Mary Poppins
Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (Music & Lyrics); Julian Fellowes (Book) with Additional Songs/Lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Based on the Stories of P.L. Travers and the Film by Walt Disney

El Beh
Mary and Bert have danced with animated animals in a cinematic Mary Poppins for almost fifty-five years with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke forever embodying those characters for millions of people around the globe.  On the Broadway and West End stages, new versions of the musical wowed audiences with stunts like Bert tap dancing up the front stage frame and across the stage, upside-down.  How can a local production on a smaller stage compete with such vivid memories of this much-beloved, musical classic? 

That is no problem whatsoever when the director is the immensely creative and a tad devilish Susi Damilano and the presenting company is San Francisco Playhouse with its long history of taking famed musicals and turning them inside-out to expose new and wonderful views.  In an eye-popping, toe-tapping, big-smile-producing Mary Poppins that also has an edgier, darker undertone than most of its predecessors, San Francisco Playhouse places under the Bay Area’s holiday tree a gift that should enchant both fans and newcomers to the Richard Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (music and lyrics), Julian Fellowes (book) musical, Mary Poppins – one based on the imaginative, much-loved stories of P.L. Travers.

Winds in the east, there’s a mist comin' in,
Like somethin' is brewin' and 'bout to begin.
Can't put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what's to happen all happened before.
A father, a mother, a daughter,r a son -
The threads of their lives unraveling undone -
Somethin' is needed to twist 'em as tight,
like string you might use when you're flyin' a kite -
Chim chimeny chim chim, cheree chim cheroo!

And with that “Prologue,” sometimes street artist, sometimes chimney sweep, and all-around handyman Bert lays out about all the plot one needs to know in order to revel in the next, near-three-hours of a story that is not shy in teaching us lessons about parenting, families, and allowing the child in us all to flourish.  As our narrator, Bert is always near-by as the story unfolds of the Banks family and their nanny who suddenly “pops in” after reading a torn-up advertisement that the children, Michael and Jane, wrote about the kind of nanny they want (“You must be kind, you must be witty, very sweet and fairly pretty”).  Mary Poppins is not the kind of nanny the stern, no-smile father, George Banks, wants for his children (“A nanny should rule; a nanny is a paragon who suffers no fool”).  Up the chimney has flown the ad his kids had written and that he has torn to bits; but the ad is not lost to the winds when it comes to Mary Poppins. 

El Beh as Mary Poppins
When Mary Poppins unexpectedly knocks at the door, the part that George gets right about their new nanny is one “who suffers no fool.” That is especially true when Mary is played by the incomparable El Beh, a Mary deliciously wry with ever a slight smirk showing.  This is not Julie Andrews’ Mary P.  El Beh’s Mary has an attitude of self-understood superiority as she matter-of-factly sings in “Practically Perfect,” “My character is spit spot spic and span; I’m practically perfect in every way.” Yet at the same time, she cannot hide that twinkle in her eyes that softens a face that is not prone to smile while on the job – except when she is enjoying fooling the children into “A Spoonful of Sugar,” where a dose of medicine takes on a fruitful flavor each most loves.  El Beh is magically mysterious as she pulls out a whole room’s furnishings from her cloth valise (just part of the rib-tickling special effects designed by Mike “Miguel” Martinez), always singing with a voice solid and sure (but never sweet or syrupy).

Her charges are the mischievous, sometimes rebellious Michael (David Rukin, alternating with Billy Hutton) and the oft-bad-tempered Jane (Ruth Klein, sharing the role with Grace Hutton).  Both are also delightful whenever they sing with voices full of attractively correct, English accent as well of a child’s fascination, determination, and boldness.  Their father, George, is a stiff-necked, stern Ryan Drummond, whose rich, deep voice sings with always a warning of ‘leave me alone’ when it comes to his children or his wife, Jane. 

Winifred Banks, is caught in the middle between trying to please a husband who believes “It is your job to be Mrs. Banks” and wanting to console her children who are only looking for some sign of love from a father who is too much becoming his own parents, who had “no time to for hugs and kisses.”  Abby Haug brings melodic vocals and perfect pitch to explain in “Being Mrs. Banks” an empathy for a husband that is admirable if not also incredible, given his harshness toward her and the children.

Mary sets out to shake up and reshape these kids who have already run off many a nanny with their unruliness and their deep-seeded frustration of having a father who will not even consider taking time to do something like fly a kite with them in the park.  Teaming up with her long-time pal Bert, she ensures that the Banks children have some adventures that are nothing short of out-of-this-world. 

David Rukin, Ruth Klein & Wiley Naman Strasser
Bert soon wins over these kids who are initially skeptical and downright rude when they see his smoke-smudged face.  As Bert, Wiley Naman Strasser sports a cockney-rich, singing voice that brings an immediate smile to anyone listening – including us as audience – and who charms the kids and us with his talents on ukulele, accordion, and even a kid’s play piano. 

El Beh & Cast of Mary Poppins
Trips through the park with Mary and Bert become escapades where all sorts of fantastically funny, quirky, and lovable characters become new friends for the kids.  A candy store appears out of thin air whose proprietress, Mrs. Corry with pink, cotton-candy hair laced with Christmas ornaments (played by a lyrically voiced Sophia LaPaglia) sells the children “an ounce of conversation.”  While being watched by a gaggle of quirky souls all dressed in the most color-popping fashions (designed by Abra Berman), Jane and Michael pull from her jar letters of the alphabet that lead to a word that is now synonymous with Mary Poppins.  In an immensely fun number of increasingly fast and complicating sung rounds, a stage full of funny folk spell via awkwardly shaped hands, feet, and bodies the now world-famous word, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” 

That number’s heart-thumping choreography designed by Kimberly Richards is only one of several, stage-filling displays of creative craftiness she brings to the show.  In “Jolly Holiday,” a park packed with strolling passers-by surround a Bert and Mary in toe-and-heel dances where El Beh’s Mary proves she is the one who is clearly in charge – taking the lead as she dances with Bert and even lifting him climatically high in the air.  After an initial slow-motion display of raised knees and poised positions by a bevy of chimney sweeps, the stage practically explodes in stomps, kicks, and high-air heel-clicks in an evening show-stopper, “Step in Time.”  In number after number, Ms. Richards’ choreography -- along with the musical excellence of a well-sung emsemble under the musical direction of Katie Coleman -- proves to be contagiously rousing.

Katrina Lauren McGraw
To a person, members of this sixteen-person cast bring humor and heart to their assigned characters, often playing a number of differing parts.  Along with a brief but hilariously royal appearance as Queen Victoria, Marie Shell is the Banks’ maid and cook, Mrs. Brill, who is at times like a barking battle-ax and at other times, a softie who is just hiding behind her mammoth, harsh exterior a deep love for the family she serves.  Dominic Dagdagan is a park’s statue of Neleus who comes to life to sing and dance and to befriend two kids who need to learn to like/respect folks different from them – even one of the marbled, stony sort.  Katrina Lauren McGraw takes on two of the evening’s most memorable characters:  a stringy-haired, rag-skirted Bird Woman, whose “Feed the Birds” proves to be the evening’s tear-jerker, and a military-tank-sized Mrs. Andrews, an evil-beyond-belief nanny who smacks her lips threateningly as she sings with operatic power and high range, “Brimstone and Treacle.” 

Wiley Naman Strasser
Even with all this talent on the stage and also that in the six-person, hidden orchestra (directed with gusto by pianist Katie Coleman), the evening’s undisputed star is the storybook-like scenes emanating from Nina Ball’s design genius and creativity.  With slanted roofs of chimneys always visible along with a peeping backdrop of projected sky (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker), a passing character – often our Puck-like narrator, Bert – turns the walls as if turning the pages in a book, even as the scenes are also rotating on the stage’s silent turntable.  Scenes take on the pop-up quality and the same whimsy one might surprisingly find in a child’s book.  Characters are swooshed up the fireplace to emerge from chimneys and then to dance and sing on a roof overlooking the Banks’ neighborhood.  There is nothing short of magic and wonder created by Ms. Ball’s scenes, Patrick Toebe’s lighting, and Jacquelyn Scott’s properties that will long remain in the memories of the evening’s audience.

With sparkling stars overhead as their companions, the cast sings “Anything Can Happen,” “if you let it,” bringing an evening to a close with of course a happy ending for all and a head ringing full of much-loved songs revisited, but this time presented with new twists and turns than the ones sung by Julie and Dick.  In the end, Director Susi Damilano and the cast and creative team of this San Francisco Playhouse production of Mary Poppins – with the help of Mary and Bert – encourage us to “broaden your horizons,” “open different doors,” and know that “you may find a you there that you never knew was yours.”

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

Mary Poppins continues through January 12, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

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