note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
With its prestigious 82-season history, the Ogunquit Playhouse is renowned for bringing Broadway, Hollywood and London stars to its stage, performing in sensational productions that rival large competitors.
The 2011, spectacular, eye-popping North America Touring Company production of 2006 Broadway extravaganza “Mary Poppins” awed audiences, with its gorgeous, storybook set and amazing technological stage effects.
Ogunquit’s new production goes even further.
The story of mystical, magical nanny, “Mary Poppins,” is universally well-known. P.L. Travers penned the series of stories about Mary in 1934, and since then, her popularity has mushroomed, in books, films, and on stage.
The winds blow Mary Poppins to families needing her help. After straightening out dysfunctional families and setting everything aright, especially at the Banks family’s 17 Cherry Tree Lane home in London, Mary opens her parrot-head-handled umbrella, and the wind sweeps her aloft, among the stars, to her next destination.
Christine Peters’ awesome set doesn’t open like a pop-up storybook, but has its own movable, colorful charm.
Music Director Jonathan Parks on keyboard and his seven musicians, along with costume designer Rachel Berchtold’s gorgeous period garb add to this visual-audio feast.
Besides the whimsical coming and goings of the mystical nanny (charmingly portrayed by Gail Bennett), as she flies vertically erect, holding onto her umbrella, and exits, soaring like a shooting star when the wind changes, the chain breaks, or she’s no longer needed, Mary makes simple tasks an adventure, performing them quickly, efficiently and fantastically.
There’s everything imaginable here, from a stodgy London bank with even stodgier bank officers, to a park that explodes with vivid colors and sounds, a carnival-like atmosphere, topped with enormous puppets, a skyscape with glittering shooting stars, and silhouetted rooftops, against pastel skies.
To create these jaw-dropping effects, Ogunquit organizers have spared no expense in this enchanting, family-friendly musical show. It’s an ideal way - or solution in Mary Poppins‘ case - to ending summer vacation.
Like the touring version and the 1964 multi-Academy Award winning Disney movie, (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke), this production features legends Richard and Robert Sherman’s music and lyrics. The famous brothers enlisted award-winning, young British partners, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, to adapt some numbers and add their own new songs, including Mary Poppins’ credo, that she’s “Practically Perfect”. (Drewe and Stiles also created popular musicals, “Honk!,” “Just So,” and “The Three Musketeers”).
Ogunquit also imported British director-Ogunquit favorite, Shaun Kerrison, “Mary Poppins’” resident director on Broadway. Kerrison spun his own magic at Ogunquit in the past few years and more recently, directing a superlative production of “Billy Elliot”. After “Mary Poppins,” he’ll direct the upcoming production of “The Witches of Eastwick,”Sept. 3-27.
Adding to the big White Way experience at Ogunquit, planners hired “Mary Poppins” veteran star Gail Bennett, who doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar to charm theatergoers. She’s practically perfect in every way. She also expounds new energy and definition to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.
From her sudden, initial appearance, to her take-charge, no-nonsense attitude with the bratty Banks children, Michael (Joseph Hall) and his sister Jane (Siara Carrillo Tracey), Mary’s magic knows no bounds. She unpacks her belongings, pulling items like a coat rack, etc. from her seemingly bottomless carpetbag. She repairs the kids’ destructive, kitchen disaster with the snap of her finger, and ensures that “Anything Can Happen (If You Let It)”. However, she smugly refuses to to explain her reasons for doing things her way.
An ordinary, “boring” (says the kids) walk in the park with Mary and her sidekick, Bert, the chimney sweep, is extraordinary, thanks to technical director Geof Dolan, Eric Martin and Jeremy Oleska’s sound effects and Rich Latta’s fabulous lighting; but Tanner Wilson as personified, lonely, silver statue, Neleus, is even more enchanting. After climbing off his pedestal to stretch his limbs and prance around with overawed Michael and Jane, Mary, Bert, and the ensemble, in “Jolly Holiday,” Neleus takes a more serious stance. He has been separated from his father, Poseidon, for years, and misses him.
Wilson also extends his choreographic-acrobatic chops as Valentine, the children’s life-sized, abused clown toy, in song-and-dance number, “Playing the Game”.
Gail Bennett’s co-star, Tony Mansker, performed as magical chimney sweep, Bert, on Broadway and in regional theaters nationally. When he sings, “Good luck will rub off when I shake hands with you,” in Shermans’ beloved, “Chim Chim Cheree,” you know it’ll happen. He also leads his cadre of Chimney sweeps along rooftops, then, aided by illustrious Flying by Foy techicians and choreographer Lisa Stevens, Bert defies gravity, dancing up the side of the stage, upside down on the ceiling, then back down the other side.
Broadway veteran performers Jonathan Rayson portrays the children’s stuffy father, George Banks, and Christiane Noll is his suppressed, overwhelmed former actress-wife, Winifred Banks. Broadway performer Sandy Rosenberg is outstanding as poor, kindly Bird Lady, with her heart-rending “Feed the Birds”. Conversely, she’s a cruel, unyielding dark presence in her dual role as George Banks‘ former nanny, Miss Andrews. Wielding her non-sugary nasty-tasting “Brimstone and Treacle” in her good vs. cruel nanny duel, or nanny-off, with Mary Poppins, Rosenberg is a menacing force.
Be prepared for a super-exciting finish-finale. When Mary flies above the audience, her boots are so close, you can almost touch them.
BOX INFO:Two-act, 2-3/4 hour musical production, co-created by Cameron Mackintosh, book by Julian Fellowes, based on the books by PL Travers and Walt Disney movie, appearing through Aug. 30, at Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St., (Route 1N), Ogunquit, Maine).Single tickets start at $39. For schedule, tickets and more information, visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org, or call the Box Office at 207-646-5511.