Magic at the Ahmanson

This afternoon, we went to see “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson Theatre. It was a magical production, with stagecraft that was miraculous, spectacular effects (including Bert dancing on the top of the proscenium arch, upside down), highly energetic music, wonderful dancing, and great performances. So where to begin in my review…

Let’s start with the story and the music. Mary Poppins, as we all know, started life as a series of books by P. L. Travers. Disney optioned those books, chose a few of the stories, and made it into the 1964 movie with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, featuring music and lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman. Those who have read stories about that production know that the heart of the movie’s story was the bird woman, but for most, the focus is on Mary Poppins. George and Winifred Banks are mostly incidental comic relief (in fact, P. L. Travers never liked the suffragette angle that Disney introduced). For the musical version, the book author (Julian Fellowes) went back to the original books and drew in some characters not in the movie; he kept most (but not all) of the Sherman songs (notably, “I Love To Laugh” is not in the musical), rearranged them to form a new coherent story, and then extended some songs and added new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (as I recall, various contractual things prohibited the Sherman Brothers from adding additional material).

The new story focuses much more on George and Winifred — not that they have a lot of action, but the focus is on the transformation of the entire family. The story has resonance for today’s time: dealing with layoffs from work, dealing with decisions made with respect to the pursuit of money, dealing with finding out what is important. But don’t think this has become an adult story. Far from it: Fellowes retained the charm of the original, and except for the opening scene of Act II, the play is remarkably light and fast paced. The energy of the song and dances helps quite a bit with that.

The staging of the play is remarkable. People appear out of nowhere, and you can’t see how they did the scenic transformations. The set design is amazing, both in how pieces fit together and work together. More importantly, there is magic on the stage. They do Mary’s carpetbag of magic holding trick, and I can’t see how it was done. Other things pop in and out, and all I can think of is that Disney has a talent for distracting the eye while they create the magic. In the second act, they even have a scene where Bert dances up the wall, across the top of the proscenium arch (upside down), and then down the other wall. Yes, you can see the rigging, but that just gets him up: it doesn’t turn him upside down and let him tap. That’s the talent. That’s the magic. I was amazed.

The cast for this is no slouch. The main leads were imported from the London cast and originated the roles, and were spit-spot perfect: Ashley Brown as Mary Poppins, and Gavin Lee as Bert. The remainder of the cast were equally strong: Karl Kenzler (George Banks), Megan Osterhaus (Winifred Banks), Jane Carr (Mrs. Brill), Ellen Harvey (Miss Andrew, Queen Victoria, Miss Smythe), Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Robertson Ay), Mary Vanarsdel (Bird Woman), Mike O’Carroll (Admiral Boom/Chairman), Katie Balen (Jane Banks), Carter Thomas (Michael Banks), Brian Letendre (Neleus), and filling out the ensemble and various other roles: Michael Gerhart, Dominic Roberts, Nick Sanchez, Q. Smith, Tom Souhrada, Tia Altinay, Carol Angeli, Gail Bennett, Kiara Bennett, Brandon Bieber, Troy Edward Bowles, Elizabeth Broadhurst, Geoffrey Goldberg, Emily Harvey, Eric Hatch, Tiffany Howard, Kelly Jacobs, Sam Kiernan, Laird Mackintosh, Vanessa McMahan, Koh Mochizuki, Shlia Potter, and Jesse Swimm. I can’t really single out people, because this was a well-oiled ensemble that worked very strongly together.

The production was directed by Richard Eyre assisted by Matthew Bourne, who did a wonderful job of keeping and mantaining a lot of energy. Choreography was by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear (assisted by Geoffrey Garratt), and was spectacular (especially in the “Step in Time” number, as well as numerous other ones). The amazing scenic and costume design was by Bob Crowley, assisted by Rosalind Coombes and Matt Kinley. Technical direction was by David Benkin. Sound design was by Steve Canyon Kennedy, with a remarkable lighting design by Howard Harrison (I should note the production made heavy use of moving lights and some remarkable projection effects). Makeup was by Naomi Donne. The excellent orchestrations were by William David Brohn, with music supervision by David Caddick and musical direction by James Dodgson, working with a mostly local orchestra. The production was produced by Disney Theatricals and Cameron Mackintosh.

Upcoming Theatre: Today was our last scheduled theatre production in 2009. I hope you have enjoyed the 2009 reviews that I wrote. We’ll be going to at least one movie over Christmas, so look for a review of that. Turning to 2010, January 2010 will bring another episode of Meeting of Minds on 1/17 (currently unticketed), as well as “Lost in Yonkers” at Rep East (starting 1/22, currently unticketed). Another interesting show, although we would have to make a weekend of it, is Duncan Sheik’s “Whisper House at The Old Globe in San Diego, running January 13 through February 21. February 2010 will also bring “The Andrews Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 13. Lastly, February will also bring “Camelot” at the Pasadena Playhouse (although they haven’t sent out the dates yet), with Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels” in March 2010.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.