Long Island Press Review: Mary Poppins: Holiday Extravaganza Opens at Engeman Theater

Long Island Press

December 2, 2016

Elise Pearlman

 

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.

 

Read online: www.longislandpress.com/2016/12/02/mary-poppins-holiday-extravaganza-opens-at-engeman-theater/

Long Island Press Review: 1776: Hit Musical About Birth of Our Nation Opens at Northport’s Engeman Theater

The Long Island Press

October 8, 2016

Elise Pearlman

 

Expect to be thoroughly entertained by an enthralling slice of American history set to music as 1776, the multiple Tony Award-winning musical about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which recently opened at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater.

The show spans the summer months of its title year. It’s uncomfortably hot in the fly-plagued Philadelphian Hall that is home to the Second Congressional Congress, and business is moving at a snail’s pace. John Adams, the Massachusetts delegate, is deeply frustrated because Congress has not moved forward on his proposal that the American colonies break free from British rule. In fact, a year has trickled through the hourglass, and Adams has earned the reputation of being obnoxious and disliked because of his persistence.

This was a rebellious act that no other British possession had ever dared contemplate. Yet life in the colonies had given rise to a new breed, less refined than the British perhaps, yet tantalizingly bold. Delegates teetered on the decision to brave “the sea in a skiff made of paper” for three sweltering months.

Eventually, when delegates do commit to a “yea” or “nay,” a deadlock emerges, with the South pitted against the North. To make matters more difficult, John Hancock, Congressional President, rules that the decision for or against independence must be unanimous, so “no colony be torn from its mother country without its own consent.”
Adams calls for a postponement and suggests that a document clarifying the reasons behind the break from Great Britain be drafted. Hence the Declaration of Independence would be written.

Jamie LaVerdiere, who boasts Broadway, national and international tour credits, previously appeared in Engeman’s The Cottage and Sweet Charity. He excels as Adams, the principled idealist and passionately annoying squeaky wheel who refuses to be silenced. Adams and his wife, Abigail, had a deep bond nurtured by written correspondence. Their responses to each other’s missives are depicted in the show. Jennifer Hope Wills, who has appeared on Broadway and regionally, does full justice to the role of Abigail. Their voices blend in sweet harmony in the songs, “Until Then,” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.”

Adams’ primary supporters in the fight for independence are Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. In his Engeman debut, Michael Glavan is superb as the taciturn Jefferson, who possessed the written eloquence needed to compose the Declaration of Independence.

David Studwell endows Franklin with both wisdom and a keen comic flair, the latter of which is showcased in the clever repartee that takes place when Franklin and Adams run into Martha Jefferson. She has been sent for by Adams because Jefferson has been pining for his wife. When asked by Franklin how the inordinately quiet Jefferson managed to snare such a comely bride, Martha (Adriana Milbrath) responds with “He Plays the Violin,” a saucy song full of innuendos and double entendres. It makes for delightful levity.

At the end of Act I, a bedraggled courier (Matthew Rafanelli), who silently trudges into Congressional Hall bearing messages from George Washington, surprises the audience with a song, “Momma Look Sharp.” It is a poignant and heartbreaking reminder of the true cost of war and Rafanelli renders it to perfection.

South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (Peter Saide) similarly delivers a wake-up call about the North’s hypocrisy with respect to slavery. “Molasses to Rum” is a stunningly dramatic number about the harsh realities of triangular trade.

The action really heats up in Act II and its songs like these two that kept me glued to my seat.

Expect to experience an engrossing behind-the-scenes look into the personalities who catapulted America into revolution. You might be reminded, as I was, of another spellbinding Engeman hit, 12 Angry Men, where there is similar deliberation. However, in 1776, the destiny of not just one man, but of an entire nation hangs in the balance. We identify with the characters’ moral and philosophical quandaries because the Founding Fathers are depicted, not as demigods, but as flawed and all too human.

The show is a deeply thought-provoking one. Given the present political climate, I felt wistful about the spirit of moral integrity that permeated Congressional Hall. Despite fundamental differences, in the final analysis, the delegates listened to others and were open to compromise, which was, at times, hard wrought.

Director Igor Goldin has been at the helm of many of Engeman’s finest productions, including Memphis, West Side Story, South Pacific, and, of course, 12 Angry Men. His astute direction and attention to detail is outstanding, making for ensemble work at its best. He once again delivers a theatrical masterpiece.

One of the first things that I noticed was the authentic period costumes, in keeping with the persona of each character. Major kudos to Kurt Alger for his costume and wig design, which delight the eyes. Compliments also to the five piece band led by Music Director Eric Alsford.

I would be remiss if I did not call attention to the playbill, which is something of a keepsake. It contains an image of the original Declaration with its signatures. There is a picture of each delegate, the actor that plays him, and fascinating details about the men who shaped history.

1776 runs through Nov. 6. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 631-261-2900 or visiting www.engemantheater.com

 

Read online: https://www.longislandpress.com/1776-hit-musical-about-birth-of-our-nation-opens-at-northports-engeman-theater/

Long Island Press Review: Mamma Mia! Hit Musical Debuts at Northport’s Engeman Theater

Long Island Press

August 2, 2016

Elise Pearlman

Mamma Mia!, the Broadway smash hit musical showcasing the high-energy songs of pop superstars ABBA, recently began its East Coast regional debut at The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport.

It is said that the musical, which has played to international audiences and had a record 14-year run on Broadway, often inspired dancing in the aisles. Well, the Engeman production was so sensational that if the historic theater had wider aisles, dancing would have prevailed. Following a thunderous standing ovation, the cast treated the audience to a finale reprising the show’s hottest numbers. As theatergoers clapped, sang along and danced in place, the actors broke the fourth wall and streamed off the stage, performing throughout the theater and heightening the excitement.

If you can only see one show this summer, it must be Mamma Mia!

The story unfolds in a taverna perched high on a sun-kissed Greek island adrift in the Aegean Sea. The owner of this little piece of paradise is single mom Donna Sheridan, who’s finishing up last-minute details in preparation for the wedding of her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie. There’s quite the emotional conundrum casting a shadow on the festivities.

Donna was never sure who Sophie’s father was because she sowed some wild oats with three guys around the time that Sophie was conceived. Sophie unearths her mother’s diary, which contains intimate details about the possible identity of her father. It’s her dream to have him walk her down the aisle, so unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has invited her three could-be fathers to the wedding. The past will collide with the present in the funniest way possible when this trio of unexpected guestswhom Donna has not seen in 21 yearsarrives.

How did the songs of the wildly popular Swedish pop music group that reigned for 10 years between the early 1970s and ’80s come to be the basis for a global smash hit?

In the early ’80s, award-winning British theatrical producer Judy Craymer serendipitously met ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson when they were working with Tim Rice on the musical, Chess. After hearing “The Winner Takes It All,” Craymar conceived of ABBA’s songs as a framework for a theatrical production. The songwriters themselves were not totally convinced of the viability of such a project.

It was a long time in the making, but in ’97, Catherine Johnson was commissioned to pen the book. The show opened in ’99 in London. It has been reported that Craymar reaped more than $100 million from her stroke of genius, and Mamma Mia! mania continues to this day. Now it’s reached Northport.

Mamma Mia! is one of the most captivating and exhilarating productions to ever grace the Engeman stage. The cast, the direction, choreography, the set and the music are simply superlative.

The performance of Michelle Dawson (Donna) is informed by a complete understanding of each of the adult female characters. She has played all of them between the Broadway National Tour and as an understudy on Broadway. Dawson shines as the strong woman who pulled herself up by her bootstraps while nursing a bruised heart. She bares her soul in the gut-wrenching song, “The Winner Takes It All,” and renders it beautifully.

Hannah Slabaugh, who boasts a plethora of national and regional tour credits, embodies the youthful exuberance that defines Sophie Sheridan. She has incredible stage presence and the mellifluous voice of an angel. From her first song, “I Have A Dream,” you’ll be smitten.  Jacob Dickey, plays Sky, her fiancé, and you’ll feel their chemistry in their duet, “Lay All Your Love on Me.”

As the story goes, Donna was once part of an all-girl band, “Donna and the Dynamos.” Donna’s singing sidekicks, Rosie and Tanya, are played to perfection by Robin Lounsbury and Heather Patterson King, respectively. Ms. King, who has played the character in Mamma Mia International RCI is hilarious as the thrice-married femme fatale who has some very humorous, off-color moments in “Does Your Mother Know?” with a flirtatious younger man, Pepper (Christopher Hlinka). Ms. Lounsbury similarly tickles the audience’s funny bone to the max in her duet with Bill (Jeff Williams).

All of Donna’s former lovers have pursued different paths in life, and a large portion of the plot has the audience guessing about Sophie’s paternity. Sam (Sean Hayden, who played the character in the Broadway National Tour), who jotted the design of the taverna on a napkin during his time with Donna, became an architect. His tender, caring side comes to the fore in the bittersweet solo, “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

Similarly, Harry (Frank Vlastnik), now a banker, shines in the reminiscent duet, “Our Last Summer.” In contrast, Bill (Jeff Williams), an Australian journalist, shows off his comedic chops when Rosie puts some aggressive moves on him in “Take A Chance On Me.”

Scenic designer DT Willis’ visually appealing set resonates with the blues and turquoises of the Aegean Sea. An oversized circular portal provides an enchanting view of the waters below the hilltop taverna. The circular theme and the Mediterranean colors are echoed in the floor design.

Further visual unification is supplied by the charming blue distressed interior doors. Adam Honoré’s glorious lighting further enhances the beauty of the set. The silhouetting of characters against the circular portal is an outstanding touch.

I first met Antoinette DiPietropolo when she directed and choreographed another one of my favorite shows at the Engeman, Nunsense. Her direction and choreography is flawless, and she brings the same sense of fun that she brought to Nunsense toMamma Mia! I particularly enjoyed the choreography and wild abandon of the seductive “Voulez-Vous,” as well as “Does Your Mother Know?”

The hits keep coming, so I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite song, but, of course, the title song, “Mamma Mia,” when a conflicted Donna experiences an emotional thunderbolt as she sees her lost love again, is a standout.

Music is what has made Mamma Mia! a sensation. The extraordinarily talented James Olmstead, who has been at the helm for Engeman’s best-loved musicals, is once again the musical director. Known for his expertise in maximizing the sound of the pit band, and his skillful re-orchestration, he is at the top of his game, and it shows, big time.

Expect to be wowed by the colorful costumes designed by Tristan Raines. I absolutely loved the form-fitting silver ensembles worn by Donna and her gal pals in “Super Trouper.” The fringed vest and granny glasses seen in “The Dancing Queen” will trigger a wave of nostalgia.

Mamma Mia! runs through Sept. 11. Theatergoers are urged to purchase tickets early as high demand has already prompted the addition of extra performances, and this show might very well sell out. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 631-261-2900 or visiting www.engemantheater.com The John W. Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport.

Read online: www.longislandpress.com/mamma-mia-hit-musical-debuts-at-northports-engeman-theater

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