Many of us remember Mary Poppins as a delightful treat from our childhood, the seemingly archetypal British nanny who not-so-quintessentially blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Festival Players’ production celebrates this beloved character while artfully exploring meaningful social commentaries, bringing to light how this classic’s themes remain relevant today. Given author P.L. Travers’ discontent with the 1964 Disney film, the musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh attempts to remain true to the heart of Travers’ Mary Poppins series.
From the onset of the performance, the audience is transported to Cherry Tree Lane of Edwardian era London, England. This era is characterized by its prevailing juxtapositions: the boredom of the Banks children, Jane and Michael, accentuates their parents’ anxiety, while the authenticity of poorer characters contrasts the upper class’ preoccupation with status and appearance. The solution to this disconnect comes in the form of Mary Poppins, who brightens the lives of the Banks family through her characteristic blend of appropriateness and fun.
Gianna Read superbly portrays Mary Poppins’ simultaneously stern and playful disposition. It might have been tempting to emulate Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins, but Ms. Read instead adeptly establishes a strong characterization of Mary in her own right. Bert serves a Dickensian role as Mary’s longtime chimney sweep friend, encouraging the people around him to see more than what they’re typically exposed to. Stephen Allred seamlessly embodies this role of a resilient character who refuses to be hardened by his circumstances.
Larissa Pohoreski does an excellent job conveying the subtleties of Winifred Banks’ plight, a woman torn between meeting her husband’s expectations and establishing an identity outside of “Mr. Banks’ wife.” While audiences may initially be unsympathetic towards Mr. Banks and his grumpy disposition, Gary Carter plays the role dynamically, revealing a dutiful character who often masks his emotions instead of processing them. Anna Johnson and Ethan Stang must be commended for portraying the Banks children with maturity and liveliness.
The musical’s choreography by Shelley Tookey is a standout, particularly during the performance of audience favourite Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and a tap sequence towards the end of the show. A few minor hiccups in execution of sound and dance are excusable but do not diminish the power of the production, as the show is equally stunning in terms of visuals and sound. Special effects allowing for Mary Poppins to fly away and for Burt to walk upside down are particularly effective.
Most notably, Mary Poppins challenges others to question how they live their lives in a way that is direct and honest, but polite too, of course. “When will you learn to look past what you see?” she asks, tying in several of the musical’s themes – the rigid British hierarchy of classes, the “proper” place of women, the relaxation of existing rules. This is the musical’s greatest strength – the ability to unite humour and entertainment with the complexity of life’s demands, just like its eponymous character. Combined with immaculate casting and expertise in establishing setting, Mary Poppins is “practically perfect in every way.”
Mary Poppins is playing at Festival Place in Sherwood Park until December 30th. Those who love the film and musicals in general will surely have a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious time!
Banner photograph courtesy of Bottom Line Productions.