Mary Poppins at TUTS: the reason for living

Theatre Under the Stars presented Mary Poppins in Malkin Bowl.

You really will feel grand when this Mary Poppins holds your hand. (Photo by Tim Matheson)

This is what life is for. Really. I’m not exaggerating.

This realization hit me as I was in Malkin Bowl watching the Theatre Under the Stars production of the musical Mary Poppins. The backdrop behind the number “Step in Time” was soaked in indigo lighting that was more seductive somehow for being outdoors. Sensual in itself, the natural setting highlights the beauty of artifice, the joy of human self-expression. In front of that fake blue sky, there was a cheesy—lovely—curtain of stars, bright reminders of the invisible stars above our heads. I was sitting next to someone I love—my ex’s 18-year-old daughter—in a community that I love, Vancouver. And I was watching a damn good show. What could be better?

Director Shel Piercy’s semi-professional production—only four members of the 25-person cast have their Equity cards—isn’t perfect, but joy doesn’t have to be perfect to be intense, and this Mary Poppins is massively successful and original.

At its heart, Mary Poppins is about a father who learns how to love his children better thanks to the intervention of a magical nanny. Russell Roberts was born to play that father, George Banks. Roberts manages to be huffy and uptight while simultaneously and generously allowing us to laugh at George’s foibles. And, in a scene near the end, when George, a banker, is facing financial ruin and his young son Michael offers him sixpence, Russell lets us see George’s heart break open. Even the Stanley Park squirrels must be touched.

Young Lola Marshal and Nolen Dubuc are also stellar as George and Winifred Banks’s children, Jane and Michael. They are great little singers, they have the confidence to play their comic lines for all they’re worth, and—no small feat for young actors—they are always credibly in character.

There were a scary couple of minutes near the beginning when I thought the hole in this production might be Mary herself. Ranae Miller is playing her and, when she entered on opening night, she had very little attack. Then she opened her mouth and sang: if Miller’s voice were wine, it would be filled with floral notes. And her performance quickly warmed up. Miller doesn’t take advantage of the darker shades of the character—Julie Andrews’s Mary in the Disney film is a lamb of innocence compared to the Mary of P.L. Travers’s books and the musical borrows some of that darkness—but, interestingly, there is an unusually heady scent of romance between this Mary and her pal Bert, the sometime chimney sweep.

It may be impossible to overact in the vastness of Malkin Bowl and, while Victor Hunt, who’s playing Bert, certainly tests that premise, he never loses sight of the character’s humanity. And his enthusiastic performance falls within the context of a production that often swings into slapstick, which mostly works.

Disappointingly, Lalainia Lindbjerg-Strelau fails to go more than ankle deep in the feminist ennui of Winifred Banks. In “Being Mrs. Banks”, Winifred reflects on the strangeness of losing your identity to your husband. She’s a lovely character, and it’s a shame that Lindbjerg-Strelau only indicates her outlines.

There’s no great harm done, though, and, sensually, this production is a dream. Under the direction of Wendy Bross Stuart, the orchestra is effervescent and precise, and Chris Sinosich’s costumes are a boat I want to float away on. In “Jolly Holliday”, the number in which Mary and Bert take the kids into a Technicolor wonderland of happiness, the men all wear striped blazers and boaters that make them look like they’ve been living, quite happily, on a steady diet of ice cream sundaes. And the pastels of the women’s dresses are so sweet and frothy that they could easily be the sundaes themselves.

With a kind of contrapuntal hand jive, choreographer Nicol Spinola achieves transcendence in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.

And Brian Ball offers a fabulous toy of a set. In the middle, there’s a giant cube that’s capable of all sorts of transformations. It spins around to reveal various rooms, and one side opens up like a huge pop-op storybook. Ball exploits that storybook feel elsewhere, too; I was particularly fond of the two-dimensional chandeliers and lanterns.

But it’s director Piercy’s playfulness with the material that ultimately wins the day. He comes up with surprise after surprise. Here, Mrs. Corry, who runs The Talking Shop, becomes a fabulous Latina (Andrea Pizarro). And, in “Feed the Birds” a song in which an old woman sells crumbs to passersby, Piercy has cast an older actor, Cecelia Smith, as the Bird Woman, and, as she sings, her much younger self (Jayda Banks) emerges and dances with women dressed as birds. She is falling in love. She is discovering joy.

When images like that keep coming at you, al you can do is hunker down in your little plastic chair, weep a little, and thank God you’re alive.

MARY POPPINS Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes. New song and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh. Directed by Shel Piercy. A Theatre Under the Stars production at Malkin Bowl on Tuesday, July 11. Continues in rep until August 18.

For tickets, phone 1-877-840-0457 at go to https://www.tuts.ca/tickets

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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