Smithtown Matters Review

Theater Review – ‘Man of LaMancha’

 

September 16, 2018
By Jeb Ladouceur

Don Quixote – by Pablo Picasso

 

 

When I heard recently that Senator John McCain had decided to suspend the medical treatments that were keeping him alive … and that he had already planned every detail of his incipient funeral, including the music that he felt would best eulogize him … my first thought centered on ‘The Impossible Dream,’ from Man of La Mancha. That’s how iconic the anthem to perseverance has become for me.

As things turned out, we all now know, McCain chose to be extolled with a recorded Frank Sinatra rendition of ‘My Way,’ the stirring ballad of autobiographical praise written by Paul Anka. I remember wondering as Sinatra’s voice filled the church during the Arizona Senator’s memorial service, how much more enobling the affair might have been had the classic La Mancha ode to courage been McCain’s choice.

But there is an ancient Roman expression (“de mortuis nil nisi bonum”) which literally translated means “Let nothing be said of the dead but what is good.” Fair enough. It was, after all, John’s funeral, and if he was comfortable with the ringing tributes of ‘My Way’ and somewhat curiously, ‘Danny Boy,’ so be it.

Still, as I attended the opening of ‘Man of La Mancha’ at Northport’s lush Engeman Theatre last Saturday, and ‘The Impossible Dream’ was performed (magnificently, I must say) my mind wandered back to the Capitol Rotunda and the National Cathedral, where a courageous John McCain’s flag-draped coffin had been attended so honorably by members of the military. For those sad hours, I concluded internally that ‘The Impossible Dream’ was indeed John’s song.

But putting sentiment aside, it should be noted that musically … musically, mind you … Man of La Mancha is a sort of one-trick-pony. When the play’s unforgettable anthem isn’t being belted out by the production’s star, Richard Todd Adams, the other numbers frankly pale to near-insignificance by comparison. This is not as fatal as the observation might lead one to believe, however. For it’s during these musical lulls that Miguel de Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote story line takes over and makes the adaption the memorable piece of theater it has become.

When it was introduced on the Broadway stage in 1965, not surprisingly, the heart-warming tale of a knight who sets out to restore gallantry to mankind, won Tony Awards for both Best Musical and Best Musical Score. The production moved to a number of playhouses on the Great White Way before making its final 2,328th performance at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1971.

An interesting aside involves the iconic Rex Harrison who, having earned innumerable plaudits starring in My Fair Lady, was seriously considered for the Don Quixote role when Man of La Mancha was testing the theatrical waters in Connecticut. Unfortunately for Harrison, the musical demands of the score proved too much for poor Henry Higgins’ vocal range … and Richard Kiley wound up in the difficult role.

Performing in Northport with leading man Richard Adams are Broadway veterans Janet Dacal (she plays a peppery Aldonza) and Carlos Lopez (as the Don’s little sidekick, Sancho Panza). Both stars bring memorable performances worthy of Northport’s renowned theater … no small accomplishment when one considers the height at which Engeman invariably sets the bar for its featured artists. For example, the great Phyllis March plays the strong, opinionated Housekeeper to absolute perfection. She delivers her somewhat lesser role so artfully that we can’t take our eyes off of her. Aspiring actors would do well to study Ms. March’s technique.

This dream of a show runs thru Sunday, October 28. If I were a school teacher, I’d give extra credit to any student who brought me a Man of La Mancha ticket stub … and of course, an apple.

 

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Smithtown Matters Review

In the Heights

By Jeb Ladouceur
March 20, 2018

The production team at Northport’s plush Engeman Theater certainly knows how to pick ‘em. Their newest offering is a stimulating show that depicts a three-day slice of life ‘In the Heights.’ Not Brooklyn Heights (the upscale area across the river from Wall Street) … nor Jackson Heights (that’s a landlocked neighborhood in Queens) … this is about Washington Heights, bordered by two rivers, up near the northern tip of Manhattan.

German immigrants first populated the area’s high bluffs, but demographics changed radically over time and by the turn of the Twenty-First Century, so many immigrants from the Caribbean Islands had moved to Washington Heights that candidates for the presidency of the Dominican Republic began to hold campaign parades there! It’s this irrepressible Hispanic element, coupled with pathos and near-feverish dance moves that make ‘In the Heights’ such an interesting musical.

And ‘Heights,’ though a bit controversial, is obviously a winner, having garnered thirteen Tony nominations and four first place trophies (including Best Musical) after its opening at the Richard Rogers Theatre in 2008. Dissimilarly, fifty years earlier, the highly touted ‘West Side Story’ had gained less than half that number of recommendations and won in only the ‘Choreography’ and ‘Set Design’ categories.

Inevitably, there will be those who assume that the current Engeman offering is a North End version of ‘West Side Story.’ Not so. At the risk of being labeled some kind of Thespian heretic, I will confess that ‘West Side Story’ has never been my cup of tea. I dislike the show’s constant drumbeat of machismo nonsense (although it must be said the frenetic ‘Heights’ production too has its share of that) … and the repetitious nature of what Bernstein and company apparently intended to be timeless romantic anthems, often renders their version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ rather tedious.

But ‘In the Heights’ is a somewhat more interesting story—Nina, the ‘bright girl who made it out’ of The Heights—is back from her Freshman year at Stanford; trouble is, ‘the pride of her neighborhood, The Corner,’ isn’t home on break … unable to pay Stanford’s steep tuition (despite working two jobs), she’s suffered academically, and been forced to drop out of the prestigious institution.

The most distressing trouble Nina gets into stems from her failure early on to have told her hard-working parents the truth about her academic collapse several months prior. In other words, it’s the cover-up that proves to be the worst part of her sad experience. Nina finally fesses-up, though, and finds out who really loves her.

Throughout this show, fate intervenes in Twenty-First Century ways. In one particularly recognizable modern-day surprise, the play benefits from a healthy shot of realism often lacking in so many modern musicals. There’s a city-wide power failure, for example—many will remember the real thing when they see John Burkland’s clever staging of the blackout … go and experience for yourself what the other familiar touches are.

To select an all-star group from among the several actors performing at The Engeman thru April 29 is not to diminish a single member of the cast. Many of the ‘also featured’ players are every bit as pleasing to watch as are the stars: Spiro Marcos (Usnavi), Josh Marin (Benny), Cherry Torres (Nina), and standout Chiara Trentalange (Vanessa).

Director Paul Stancato, and Choreographer Sandalio Alvarez, must have been paying close attention when my associate, critic Charles Isherwood, conceded in The Times ”…this musical erupts in … collective joy … the energy it gives off could light up theGeorge Washington Bridge.” He hit the nail squarely on the head. Charles could have been speaking for all of us who had just seen Northport’s rousing rendition of ‘Heights,’ though I might have added kudos for Musical Director Alec Bart and the rest of the creative team that includes: Christopher Ash (scenic design), Christopher Vergara (costumes), John Burkland (lighting design), and Don Hanna (sound).

One wonders how The Engeman comes up with so many capable theatrical craftsmen, show after remarkable show.

One caveat: you won’t like ‘In the Heights’ if you detest rap musicals, as some of us admittedly do. But if the non-stop rat-a-tat of‘street opera’ turns you on, go see the twenty-one performers currently vocalizing and gyrating at Northport’s Engeman Theater. I’m told they’ve turned in a faithful rendition of what goes on in upper Manhattan.

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Smithtown Matters Review: ‘Once’

Smithtown Matters
Jeb Ladouceur
January 30, 2018

In March of 2012 the musical ‘Once’ opened on Broadway and stunned the theatrical world with an astonishing eleven Tony Award nominations … and eight wins! What’s more, those triumphs included Best Musical, and Best Actor. As proof of the fact that ‘Once’ was no flash-in-the-pan, the show also won 2012’s Drama Desk, and Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Outstanding Musical, and followed-up with the Drama League Award, as well as 2013’s Grammy for top Musical Theater Album.

It must have been some post-awards party!

The Boffo (if somewhat oddly-staged) Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová production closed in early 2015, following nearly 1200 performances on the Great White Way. With a simple set that mimics a soddy Irish pub, a rather one-dimensional book, and austere costumes … not to mention a scarcity of memorable songs (the unforgettable ‘Gold’ is the exception) … this show, in which the cast is also the orchestra, is not your typical big town extravaganza. Nor is the average ‘eager boy meets reluctant girl’ plot anything new. This is a ‘Musician’s Musical’ staged in Dublin with the usual ‘leaving home’ Irish plot.

It’s the story of a ‘Guy’ in his 30’s … a Dublin street musician played to near-perfection by Barry DeBois. He’s a singer-songwriter-guitarist by night, and a vacuum cleaner repairman (of all things) during the day, ‘Guy’ has recently been jilted by his iron-willed girlfriend. She’s forsaken him in favor of life in The Big Apple, leaving ‘Guy’ with a broken heart and a determination to forget about his soulful music altogether. He vows henceforth to stick exclusively to his regular job—fixing those kaput vacuum cleaners ‘…the ones that just won’t suck.’

Bidding adieu to the bar where he’s been singing and playing, ‘Guy’ has every intention of leaving his guitar and his sorrow behind in the on-stage pub; the romantic memories associated with the familiar instrument are just too painful to bear. But that’s when a delightful young Czech woman, referred to simply as ‘Girl,’ detects ‘Guy’s’ angst and, having fallen for his musicianship (and his sad tale of woe), ‘Girl’ ultimately reveals that she, too, has a balky vacuum … if ‘Guy’ can fix it, and keep on playing and singing, she’ll play piano accompaniment for him … gratis.

Deal? … okay, the deal is struck … strike up the band … etcetera.

We learn about a kindly banker … a change of heart for ‘Guy’ (and ‘Girl’ as well) … an overhauled Hoover or two … and the compulsory recording company that quickly spots ‘Guy’s’ talent … all fairly predictable, and not unpleasant stuff.

In the capable hands of Director/Choreographer Trey Compton, the Engeman audience is treated to a show that will strike a chord with every musically inclined troubadour (as some of us envision ourselves) … will resonate with anyone who has ever suffered the pangs of unrequited love (ouch!) … and will please the lucky patrons in our midst who have found serendipitous redemption from misfortune when and where they least expected it.

And speaking of serendipity, local theatergoers who never thought they’d be enchanted by a musical featuring such rarities as a soft-hearted financial loan officer (believe that or not), and a cupid-like thirty-something Mom with a daughter named Ivonka (I’m not kidding), are in for a huge surprise. Because thanks primarily to the multi-talented Barry DeBois (The Guy) and Andrea Goss (The Girl), the snazzy Engeman Theatre on Main Street in Northport is likely to keep those plush seats filled for the duration of this play’s fairly long run thru March 4th.

Some might even want to see ‘Once’ … ‘twice!’

Read online: http://www.smithtownmatters.com/long-island-theater/theater-review-once.html

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Smithtown Matters Review: Annie

Smithtown Matters
Jeb Ladouceur
November 13, 2017

One can hardly believe it’s been forty years since ‘Annie’opened at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) on West 52nd Street in Manhattan. What was even more improbable, was viewing Andrea McArdle (creator of 11-year-old Annie in 1977) as she starred in the Gateway (Bellport) revival of ‘Anything Goes’ last year. How stunning that McArdle, now an all-grown-up 53 years of age, still prances about the stage like a teenager! Andrea is one of those legends who, like 2016’s Encore-winning show, ‘Anything Goes,’ just doesn’t age.

And now, courtesy of Northport’s plush Engeman Theater, we get to see first-hand that ‘Annie’too, is as fresh and vibrant as ever. Which is saying something … because the 1977 boffo hit was nominated for an eye-popping eleven Tony Awards—and won seven—including Best Musical!

Is it any wonder that the show ran for 2,377 performances? That translates to nearly six continuous years … at the time, a record for the 1500-seat Alvin Theatre. Figure about a million seatings, and close to a hundred million bucks at the box office (if my calculations add up). Not even ‘Snoopy’ … ‘L’il Abner’ … or the irrepressible ‘Spider Man’ … could come close to ‘Little Orphan Annie’ as a comic strip-based Broadway attraction.

The story line in this gem of a Depression Era musical (lyrics by Martin Charnin, music by Charles Strouse) has pre-teen Annie escaping from the orphanage where she lives, in a laundry bag thrown over the shoulder of a deliveryman. She winds up in the home of wealthy … and well-connected … Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks, who reluctantly warms to her. From there on, the thin plot becomes improbably political, but this is a musical, after all, and the tale provides ample opportunities for appropriately uplifting ballads … especially the number that has become the international anthem of optimism, ‘Tomorrow.’ 

This production is directed and choreographed by Engeman veteran Antoinette Dipietropolo (better choreographed than directed, it seems), and it features a sterling performance by George Dvorsky as ‘Daddy’ Warbucks. Someone once implied that it’s theatrical suicide to compete with kids or dogs on stage. But in ‘Annie’ Dvorsky takes on both … and holds his own quite well indeed. This multi-talented actor proves to be the flat-out chairman of the boards in what has become one of the most widely esteemed musicals ever staged … the New York Times estimates that ‘Annie’ is produced around 800 times in this country … every year! That’s popularity, folks.

The kudos for Dvorsky aside, it should not be concluded that Presley Ryan in any way takes a back seat with her interpretation of Annie in the demanding title role. To the contrary, the young lady fills the bill of the perky little redhead convincingly and then some. The same is true for Lynn Andrews, who plays the deliciously mean antagonist, ‘Miss Hannigan,’ and gives us someone to hiss at. Without Andrews’ Dickensian presence to balance the several loveable characters on this show’s endearing roster, the plot would suffer greatly.

Significantly, ‘Annie’ runs right thru Christmas, and the production’s festive lighting, period costumes, choreography (and that elevating score) make it a good choice for presentation over the holidays. Combined with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at Star Playhouse in Commack (thru November 19) … and the perennial fixture ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Theatre Three (which, as always, will play to packed houses thru December 30th), local audiences once again can expect to be treated to the very best in Broadway-caliber entertainment.

In short, ‘Annie’ helps make this a wonderful time to experience legitimate theater on Long Island.

 

Read online: http://www.smithtownmatters.com/long-island-theater/2017/11/13/theater-review-annie.html#entry35995928

Smithtown Matters Review: “Grease” Engeman Theater

Smithtown Matters

July 10, 2017

Jeb Ladouceur

If nearly all the songs in the current Engeman production of ‘Grease’ sound the same, it’s because that’s the way most melodies were in the late 50’s. Tunes of the day seemed to have been produced by a musical cookie cutter. That said, give Director Paul Stancato and his cast of seventeen singers and dancers high marks for capturing the mood of teenage life and love at fictional Rydell High (based on the William Howard Taft  School) in 1958 suburban Chicago.

It was a time, of course, when most American kids nearing graduation snuck an alcoholic drink now and then … and everybody (but everybody!) … smoked cigarettes religiously. Indeed one of the more ironic lines in this musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey has a girl coaxing her classmate to go ahead and take a puff because, “…heck, it won’t kill ya’.”

If only we’d known then, what we know now.

Speaking of which … there’s a subliminal message that might be learned from this throwback show. Of all seventeen members of the cast, this reviewer spotted only two who bore tattoos (and even they appeared to have been the subjects of unsuccessful attempts to cover them). The caveat might effectively caution young actors who hope to bring authenticity to their interpretations of roles gone by … to lay off the ink. After all, they make those ‘wash-off’ kiddie tats if I’m not mistaken. The fact, however, is that mid-20th Century high schoolers didn’t use tattoos … just as they didn’t wear torn jeans (we called them dungarees at Riverhead High, if I remember correctly.)

With ‘Grease,’ The Engeman continues a long string of more-than-satisfying musical revivals. On the distaff side, Laura Helm (as Marty) and Madeleine Barker (playing Rizzo) contribute most significantly to this production … while Sam Wolf (in the play’s demanding lead role) turns in a classic Danny Zuko.

Naturally, with the passing of years, fewer and fewer theatergoers will recognize the dance, ditty, and dialogue patterns that make creations like ‘Grease’ so familiar and appealing. Already, those patrons who have not yet reached the age of ‘three score and ten’ will be puzzled by many of the 1958 references written into this show. But even with the necessity of inferring a term, or a phrase’s meaning in lieu of actual recollection, a well-constructed show laced with capable players never loses its ability to entertain us.

Some things haven’t changed since Adam & Eve, and ‘Grease’ comes up with a surprise when Betty Rizzo announces hers … yep … the play’s pepperpot informs us she’s “…five days late, and in a family way.”

Oh, my! You’ll just have to see for yourself how that works out, but the situation pretty much verifies that what’s been hinted at throughout the musical, has indeed been going on (probably in the on-stage convertible named ‘Greased Lightning’ that the various couples seem to share … for a variety of activities.

It seemed to my companion and me last weekend that the costumes (by Matthew Solomon) while interesting, didn’t quite constitute the period garb we remembered … she in Queens in the 50’s … myself in Eastern Long Island during the same time frame. Then again, the locale for this show is the Chicago area, so those leather jackets and polka dot or flaring skirts could actually be spot on.

 

Read online: http://www.smithtownmatters.com/theater-review-grease-engeman-theater

Smithtown Matters Review: Jekyll & Hyde

Smithtown Matters

Jeb Ladouceur

March 28, 2017

 

About twenty years ago, when I first heard that the famed thriller novella (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson) was to be staged as a musical, my initial reaction was, ‘What next?’ I feared the moguls of Broadway might eventually give us a musical comedy version of ‘The Bad Seed,’ for heaven’s sake … just to show that nothing is impossible in the wacky world of show business.

Furthermore, I was convinced that ‘Jekyll & Hyde – The Musical’ would soon find itself on the scrap heap of failed productions that depend solely on the popularity of late 19th century literary works for their success.

How wrong I was. Four years later, the melodramatic ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ was still packing in enthusiastic audiences at New York’s Plymouth theater (a record for that grand old playhouse at the time) and the show finally closed after an impressive 1,543 regular performances! It had garnered four Tony nominations … won in the ‘Best Costumes’ category … and was even more triumphant in the prestigious Drama Desk, and Outer Circle Awards groupings.

Sadly, I never saw the Broadway offering.

The story, of course, is a familiar one … it’s a general analysis of how good and evil can co-exist in the same person … and the production on the Engeman boards now thru April 30 has gambits that smack of Sondheim, Wilde, and Shakespeare … specifically: Sweeney Todd, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Othello.

What the current Engeman show has that those other theatrical creations almost assuredly did not, however, is the most versatile, dynamic, energetic performance that this critic has ever seen! Indeed, any theater aficionados who miss the opportunity to observe Nathaniel Hackman in the demanding dual roles of compassionate Dr. Henry Jekyll and vicious Mr. Edward Hyde, will be depriving themselves of the artistic treat of a lifetime.

Producer Richard Dolce will stage ‘Jekyll & Hyde – The Musical’ at Northport’s delightful Engeman Theater thru April 30th(Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings – with Matinees on Saturday and Sunday). The guess here is that once word gets around about the virtuosity of Mr. Hackman, a majority of those dates will be sold out … just as the matinee was when I attended last Saturday.

In critiques such as this one, it is required that the reviewer support his claims whether they be superlative or disparaging. That said, the critic’s task of reporting on the ‘Jekyll & Hyde’  now under consideration is immediately reduced by half … there is absolutely nothing censorious to say about this polished gem of a show.

Accordingly, we may focus on Mr. Hackman’s considerable skills that made his performance the magical tour de force it became: It goes without saying that this play requires deep insight into the nature good and evil … particularly as they occupy the body of a single individual simultaneously (this, after all, is the plot in a nutshell). In that regard, Nathaniel Hackman immediately makes gasping believers of his audience despite the improbable nature of the proposition.

Then there is the matter of the remarkable lead actor’s singing voice. The man’s appealing baritone is quite simply top-notch. I never heard him miss a single note or beat in two hours. As for his stage presence … Hackman owned the Engeman boards with every step he took, whether as the romantic Dr. Jekyll or the threatening Mr. Hyde.

It would be unfair to reveal much of the detail about the special effects that Director / Choreographer Paul Stancato and Lighting Designer Keith Truax have in store for audiences during the forthcoming month. Suffice it to say that both impresarios combine to take full advantage of Hackman’s energetic skills, and together the trio creates an absolutely unforgettable climactic light show that theatergoers will be talking about for generations.

If that sounds like hyperbole … go see for yourself. Like everyone else in the grand Engeman Theater (including Nathaniel Hackman’s accomplished fellow actors) you’ll stand and cheer this wonderfully gifted artist off the stage.

 

Read online: http://www.smithtownmatters.com/theater-review-jekyll-hyde.html

Smithtown Matters Review: ‘The Full Monty’

Smithtown Matters

Jeb Ladouceur

January 23, 2017

 

No one seems to know the exact origin of the British term ‘The Full Monty,’ but we’re certainly aware of what it defines in modern parlance. It means ‘whole hog’ … ‘all the way’ … ‘the whole enchilada’ … ‘the works!’

Accordingly, when Terrence McNally wrote the book for David Yazbeck’s musical about six destitute steel workers determined to raise money by putting on the mother of all male strip shows, he wisely stuck with the tantalizing title of the 1997 film from which the production is derived … and New York voyeurs showed up in droves to take a peek.

As it turns out, the show, which opened at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre in October of 2000, had more going for it than just a suggestive moniker. Indeed, the musical garnered ten Tony nominations … a dozen Drama Desk nods … and ran for 800-plus performances. Not since ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ had such a provocative ‘come-on’ lit up The Great White Way.

Okay … maybe theatergoers in the mid-Long Island area don’t constitute quite the same naughty audience that flocked to sold-out performances of ‘The Full Monty’ on Broadway for two years. Still, it was apparent from last weekend’s Engeman opening of the risqué musical, that we locals can hardly be labeled a bunch of prudes. The titters, belly laughs, and catcalls were all there, and they rocked the jammed playhouse from curtain to curtain.

The concept of this show is a good one: It is built around six men’s convictions that their wives’ mania following a Chipendales performance, would be nothing compared to what the out-of-work sextet could generate … if they staged a similar beefcake production, but topped it off with … get the digitalis … a Full Monty climactic number!

Boyoboy!

Of course, there are some things even legitimate theater can’t get away with (apologies for the ‘dangling preposition’), but Director Keith Andrews keeps his six leading men in check just barely (there I go again) enough to dissuade the Northport cops down the street from raiding the joint.

The half-dozen would-be ‘eye candy’ exhibitionists turn-in some surprisingly dazzling, and dramatically empathetic performances along the way, and the actors deserve to be mentioned here. They are: Brent Diroma (as Jerry Lukowski), Ryan Dunkin (Dave Bukatinsky), Peter Hilton (Harold Nichols), Spencer Glass (Malcolm MacGregor), Noah Bridgestock (Ethan Girard), and Milton Nealy (playing ‘Horse’ Simmons).

‘The Full Monty’ contains obvious overtones of Mel Brooks’ classic ‘The Producers’ so it’s hardly coincidental that Richard T. Dolce, The Engeman’s Producing Artistic Director, tapped veteran dance arranger Antoinette DiPietropolo … who choreographed ‘Producers’ … to fill that vital function in this show. Comedy in dance must be an extremely difficult effect to achieve (Donald O’Connor and Danny Kaye were the masters, for my money) but DiPietropolo’s work is right up there with the best we’re likely to see in any genre. She created perfect synchronization throughout between her amateur ‘artistes’ and Musical Director Andrew Haile Austin.

‘The Full Monty’ has scheduled a fairly long run (it closes on March 5th) but the suggestion here is that tickets ($71.- $76.) be purchased well in advance. This is one of those productions that will almost surely fall into the ‘sleeper’ category … a show you definitely won’t want to have heard about from your neighbor once it’s over. That would be a shame! You’d lose out on show-stopping numbers by Nealy (‘Horse’) and Diane Findlay (who excels as piano-playing ‘Jeanette Burmeister’).

As for likely sources of the expression ‘Full Monty’ … most attribute the term in some way to British Field Marshal ‘Monty’ Montgomery … others favor English clothier Montague Burton … and so forth. It’s my theory, however, that the phrase stems from betting the entire pot in the old card game, ‘Monte.’ At any rate, don’t miss this bang-up show. It’s got some of the funniest sight gags you’ll ever see.

 

Read online at: http://www.smithtownmatters.com/theater-review-the-full-monty/

Smithtown Matters Review: MARY POPPINS

Smithtown Matters

November 21, 2016

Jeb Ladouceur

 

Sooner or later, it seems, every theatrical organization gets a crack at ‘Mary Poppins’—and now through New Year’s Eve, it’s The Engeman’s turn. Actually the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous for locals, because with the exception of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ (currently playing its standard holiday gig forty minutes east in Port Jefferson) the whimsical story of the magical nanny created on film by Julie Andrews might be the perfect show for kids of all ages during the holiday season!

If that sounds like overstatement, theatergoers simply have to see the enchanting Analisa Leaming for themselves. If ever a stage actress was perfectly cast as the ultimate au pair, it’s Leaming!

We all know the story immortalized by the 1964 Disney movie … governess-type Mary Poppins shows up at the privileged London home of little Jane and Michael Banks, where she wows the obstreperous children by introducing them to amazing chimneysweeps, mind boggling shopkeepers, dancing statues, and other unforgettable characters who quickly win the youngsters’ hearts.

The film about kids largely denied affection by their father (a la ‘Sound of Music’) was a natural for the stage, thus it opened on Broadway in 2006 … and ran there for seven years!

Granted, ‘Mary Poppins’ is not a jolly holiday show in the manner of ‘White Christmas’ or Dickens’ classic story fashioned around old ‘Ebenezer Scrooge,’ but it’s an appealing tale of childhood whimsy nonetheless, and as such, the narrative qualifies as an appropriately festive offering at this celebratory time of year.

Mary is named ‘Poppins’ because she just shows up magically from time to time—that is to say, she just ‘pops in’—get it? And though she’s the undisputed star of the show, ‘Bert,’ the wonderful singing, dancing Chimneysweep, who essentially is the musical’s narrator, complements the dazzling Mary expertly with clever and revealing dialogue. In fact ‘Bert’ (Luke Hawkins) delivers one of the most spot-on lines in the play when he tells Mary, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” Because Leaming sure is, folks! The slender, statuesque woman is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s difficult to imagine any young lady looking better in an Edwardian outfit. Those stunning turn-of-the-20th century walking suits and high-button shoes seem to have been designed with Analisa Leaming in mind.

Striking, too, are all of the ensemble’s colorful pastel costumes designed by Kurt Alger. Mary stands out, of course, in her red, blue, white, or black outfits (she seems to change every ten minutes or so), and even the drab clothing of the dowdy ‘Bird Woman,’ (so poignantly interpreted by Suzanne Mason,) is appropriate in its dreary contrast to the leading lady’s finery.

The starring children in this play are ‘Jane and Michael Banks,’ played by Katherine LaFountain and Christopher McKenna. They are on stage virtually non-stop, and do a fine job in their taxing roles. One notable youngster, who appears less frequently, is Sophia Eleni Kekllas. She plays a come-to-life doll named ‘Valentine.’ Sophia exhibits all the tools necessary for future stardom; indeed her superb stage presence is obvious despite her brief role and tender years. Someone has guided the gifted child’s early career with first-rate insight.

There are two magnificent production numbers in this endearing musical, and they are entirely different in style and execution. One is the tongue-twisting ‘Super-cali-fragilistic-expiali-docious,’ (hyphens added here) which is skillfully sung, and cleverly choreographed with colorful alphabet blocks. The other is ‘Step In Time.” It’s a show-stopping piece wherein ‘Bert,’ ‘Mary,’ and the ‘Banks Children’ join fifteen ‘Chimneysweeps’ in a rousing, perfectly timed tap dance extravaganza.

If there’s anything not to like in this Drew Humphrey-directed show, I don’t know what it would be. Maybe a few encores could be added. That would have delighted the sold-out crowd who stood and cheered last weekend … as Mary Poppins flew down from the midnight London sky with her umbrella … and took her well-deserved bows.

 

Read online at: www.smithtownmatters.com/long-island-theater/

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