Despite some looming rain and fog, Mary Poppins managed to land her umbrella on the stage of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre.
The familiar story opens at the Banks family home on Cherry Tree Lane — in full disarray with a frustrated Katie Nanna (Victoria Wells-Smith) quitting her job thanks to two bratty children, their dishevelled and defeated mother, Winifred Banks (Meghan Herder), who feels she has failed at hiring yet another nanny, and their rigid, curmudgeon of a father with the troubled childhood, George Banks (Craig Pike). He is by far the most emotionally complicated character in the show. If this were Mad Men, he’s Don Draper.
The Banks children, Jane (Sarah Drover) and Michael (Nicolas Keough), sing the adorable advertisement they’ve written, outlining their requirements for The Perfect Nanny. Their cranky daddy rips up the paper and tosses it in the fireplace, but it seems to turn into a magical nanny named Mary Poppins (Erin Winsor), who shows up claiming the position.
Baffled as to where exactly this woman came from, George has other things on his mind, so he angrily passes the decision off to Winifred before storming out the door to his very important job at the bank.
From there, the strict yet charismatic Mary Poppins goes about setting those naughty kids right, teaching them lessons about always having a sunny disposition, looking at the silver lining, and always having empathy for people from all walks of life.
There were no weak performances in this production. If I had to pick a favourite character, it would be the sneaky little imp Michael, whom Mr. Keough played “practically perfect in every way.” His and the other characters’ British accents were Carnaby Row-convincing, except maybe Bert’s (Stephen Roberts) over-the-top cockney chirp. But in the 1965 Disney film, Dick Van Dyke’s ridiculous accent helps emphasize his silliness, so maybe Roberts was paying homage.
All singing was strong, although it lacked a little nuance in some performances. The sound was sometimes unbalanced, making the singing hard on the ears at times. However, I’m sure any opening night kinks will be ironed out for future performances.
A highlight was “Step In Time” — bursting with energetic, top-notch tap dancing and impressive choreography (a nod to Victoria Wells-Smith, who choreographed the show and played several roles).
Set design (Anna Treusch), costume design (Deborah Clarke, Amy Edwards) and lighting design (Brian Bishop) were all stand-out, with smooth flow between set changes and nice juxtaposition between the dreary London streets and the technicolour world of Bert’s chalk street drawings.
Audiences should be aware that the stage version is not identical to the Disney movie.
There are many additional songs with reprises, and there seems to be more emphasis on the children’s stories by P.L. Travers. Some songs from the movie (I Love to Laugh, Stay Awake) are omitted from the musical, sadly.
There is some repetition in the plot, with too many reprises — the children get antsy and misbehave, Mary takes them on an adventure and teaches them a lesson which lifts their spirit, they run excitedly to their father who dismisses them angrily, and the whole thing happens again. The script is not as tight and succinct as the film, which makes the stage version feel a little draggy, through the first act especially.
But this is of no reflection on the Theatre St. John’s production. Finishing its seventh season, the company is certainly delivering on its mandate to produce professional-quality musicals in St. John’s.
The conclusion is heartwarming, as Mary floats off into the London clouds to help her next family, and the Banks clan basks in the glow of their reformed father, and his realization that a simple life with family love and showing warmth towards other people is really the only thing that matters.
Mary Poppins plays at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre until Sept. 22 (family matinees at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 and 22). For ticket info, call the box office at 729-3900.