Long Island Press
December 2, 2016
A holiday show is a genre all its own. It should tug on heartstrings and make the audiences smile, yet have music and glitz that fires up the imagination. The musical Mary Poppins, which recently opened at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, delivers all this and more.
Those looking to create lasting holiday memories with their families should partake of this show, which is truly an extravaganza. Theatergoers cannot ask for more in terms of engaging, family-friendly holiday entertainment.
The show is set in Edwardian London of the early 1900s. Something is sadly amiss at the home located at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Members of the well-to-do Banks family are at odds with each other.
George Banks, the patriarch, is a stern, hands-off father, who espouses the philosophy that children should be seen and not heard. Having been raised by a nanny himself, George seeks an employee who will infuse his offspring, Jane and Michael, with “precision and order.” The children act out by tormenting the nannies with pranks and shenanigans until they quit.
All is not quiet on the marital front either. George is very concerned with status and insists that wife, Winifred, focus on getting into the right social circle even though it makes her uncomfortable.
Having lost their sixth nanny, George is set to advertise for a replacement. But Jane and Michael have a wish list of their own: a nanny who would play games with them, read stories and simply bring childhood wonder back into their lives.
In short order, Mary Poppins mysteriously appears on their doorstep. Mary immediately takes control, extoling her virtues as the quintessential nanny in the delightful song, “Practically Perfect.” She also astounds the children by taking all manner of things—including a hat rack—out of her carpet bag.
The story of Mary Poppins—the inspiration for the memorable Walt Disney movie—was originally part of a series of books written by P.L. Travers. The author, who did not have a very happy childhood, spun the idealistic tale of a nanny with magical powers to entertain her siblings. She based the Poppins character on an aunt who also possessed a seemingly bottomless carpet bag.
Jane and Michael often judge people by their appearances and Mary teaches them to look beneath the surface. While at first they see Bert, the happy-go-lucky chimney sweep as dirty, they find out that Bert, who will be part of many adventures, is very likeable, full of fun, and he and Mary are old friends.
Similarly, when they run into the Bird Woman, who ekes out a meager living selling bags of food for the pigeons in the park, they see her as simply a bundle of rags. As the old woman (Suzanne Mason) and Mary render their heart-rendering duet, “Feed the Birds,” the children realize that the Bird Woman is really a kindly soul who has devoted her life to bringing nourishment to the tiny winged creatures.
Stunning musical showstoppers abound. One of my favorites is the astoundingly enthusiastic “Jolly Holiday,” in which Mary, Bert and the children are joined by the entire ensemble and wow the audience with song and dance. The colorful costumes are a visual delight. This number elicited spontaneous applause.
An extremely humorous bit of slapstick occurs when Mrs. Brill, the cook (Linda Cameron) gives Robertson Ay (Danny Meglio) some simple instructions to carry out in preparation for Mrs. Banks’ socialite tea party and things go hilariously awry. The mishap is followed by the crowd-pleasing tune, “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
As an investment banker, George is not so commanding and self-assured as he is at home. Act I leaves the audience with two cliffhangers. George makes a decision to fund one of two business ventures and time will tell if he made the right choice. Then, unexpectedly, Mary leaves in order to see how the family fares without her input. As she soars above the silhouetted rooftops of London, the audience is left to wonder if the Banks family will ever learn to function as a family without her help.
Directed and choreographed with great finesse and attention to detail by Drew Humphrey, Mary Poppins delights on every level. Analisa Leaming, who boasts a plethora of impressive Broadway credits, is the ideal Mary. From her very first song, “Practically Perfect,” the audience will be wowed by her melodic voice which borders on the operatic. She is a sight to behold in Kurt Alger’s spot-on period costumes. Expect to be smitten.
Luke Hawkins, who plays Bert, has appeared in Xanadu and Cirque de Soleil on Broadway. His amiability makes him the perfect sidekick for Mary. He will tap dance his way into your heart in numbers like the showstopper, “Step in Time.”
Katherine LaFountain (Jane) and Christopher McKenna (Michael) are no newcomers to the Engeman stage. They both have incredible stage presence and can sing and dance with the best of them.
George and Winifred are played by David Schmittou and Liz Pearce, respectively. Although Mary Poppins appears on the scene to correct the damage caused to the children by these wayward parents, the fact that the parents eventually win the audience’s sympathy is a credit to their fine acting.
Major kudos to Kurt Alger for his outstanding costume and hair design, which are truly an eye-catching salute to the elegant finery of the early 1900s. Jason Simms’ scenic design, showcasing the landmark London clock tower, combined with Zach Blane’s lighting, makes for dramatic silhouetted nightscapes. The six piece band directed by Michael Hopewell does full justice to the music.
Mary Poppins runs through Dec. 31. Tickets can be purchased at the theater’s box office, 250 Main St, Northport, by calling 261-2900 or by visiting www.engemantheater.com.