Theatre Review: Theatre Under The Stars’ Mary Poppins adds a humanistic quality to the Disney classic

Mary Poppins (Ranae Miller) and Bert (Victor Hunter) lead the ensemble. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Mary Poppins (Ranae Miller) and Bert (Victor Hunter) lead the ensemble. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

As the famous lines from Disney’s Mary Poppins goes, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Most productions of Mary Poppins, while magical and uplifting, are admittedly a little more than just a spoonful of sugar – the overly spectacular qualities are more like a spoonful of steroids. And while these productions are always wonderful to watch, I’ve always found it personally difficult to connect with the show – until I watched Theatre Under The Stars’ (TUTS) version of Mary Poppins, currently lighting up the stage of the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. What this production of Mary Poppins offers is classic Broadway pizzazz, while also adding a humanistic quality to the well-known story.

First of all, the presentation is superb. The show opens with a beautiful tableau of all the characters – for some reason, it reminded me of one of the paintings at Hogwarts in Harry Potter. It was pretty, but somewhat eerie at the same time, which coincides with Bert’s eerie opening lines of “Chim chimney chim chim cheree”. Throughout the show, the impressive cast formations (thanks to choreographer Nicole Spinola) combined with Chris Sinosich’s colourful and period-appropriate costumes, as well as Brian Ball’s picturesque backdrops and set pieces create some gorgeous visions. It’s very pleasing to the eye – and when infused with Spinola’s brilliant choreography, the strong vocals under the direction of music director Wendy Bross Stuart, and the energetic cast performances, what we have is old school Broadway magic. It feels like we could be watching the Broadway revival of Hello Dolly.

But things aren’t just glitz and glamour. Ranae Miller’s portrayal of Mary Poppins is a human version of the often detached character. Like her lines suggest, Miller is practically perfect in every way, from her stunning soprano voice to her upright posture and pristine movements. However, when she leaves the Banks family at the end (this shouldn’t be a spoiler for anyone on planet earth), she shows her emotional vulnerability and it creates a touching connection between her character and audiences. Likewise, Victor Hunter is excellent as Mary’s counterpart, the suave and cheeky Bert. His singing is beautiful, his cockney accent is en pointe, and he moves brilliantly across the stage in a dashing and charming manner.

In every production I’ve seen of Mary Poppins, the performance of little Michael Banks is always 100 percent cuteness. But in his portrayal of the character, young Nolen Dubuc actually acts. His lines come from a genuine character-driven place, and it felt so refreshing to see someone actually act the role. Both Dubuc and Lola Marshall (as Jane Banks) are delightful to watch, and their English accents are pulled off very well.

The cast is excellent, including Lalainia Lindbjerg-Strelau (Mrs. Banks), Russell Roberts (Mr. Banks), and Jaime Piercy (Miss Andrew); however there are few I would also like to highlight. Triple-threat sensation Kyle McCloy is dynamite as the dancing statue Neleus. It’s a shame that Neleus’ solo has been removed from this version of the show, as it would have given this young performer an amazing opportunity to further share his considerable talent with audiences. As the kind bank customer, John Northbrook, actor William Tippery is very sweet and adds a nice moment to the show. And an uncredited young female dancer is exquisite in her section as the dance version of the Bird Lady in “Feed the Birds”. Her extension, technique and musicality is spectacular.

Throughout the show, there is a sense of community that builds, that I haven’t noticed in previous productions. The ensemble are nicely woven into the neighbourhood scenes and group numbers, and it appeared to me that they often times maintained the same character. By the end of the show, you feel like you’ve gotten to know not just the Banks family, but also the community, and it makes the fireworks-themed closing moments of the show very touching.

From left to right: Mary Poppins (Ranae Miller), Jane Banks (Lola Marshall), Bert (Victor Hunter) and Michael Banks (Nolen Dubuc). Photo credit: Tim Matheson  

From left to right: Mary Poppins (Ranae Miller), Jane Banks (Lola Marshall), Bert (Victor Hunter) and Michael Banks (Nolen Dubuc). Photo credit: Tim Matheson  

Spinola’s choreography is extremely creative. While the dancing penguins and the carousel scene were technically written out of the stage version of Mary Poppins, Spinola uses her imaginative choreography to infuse them back into “Jolly Holiday”. The strong ensemble of dancers perform Spinola’s choreographer with great flair, and some other group number highlights include “Supercali…” and of course the rousing “Step in Time”.

Despite how great this production is, there are a few things that don’t work. There are a number of bizarre choices. Sometimes it’s very confusing as to where the characters are. During the “Being Mrs. Banks/Let’s Hope She Will Stay” number, it appeared that Mrs. Banks had come outside the house during the night. It also appears that her two kids have sneaked outside as well, while singing their own song. While standing just a few feet away from each other, the mom and kids don’t seem to notice each other…and it’s odd that this family is running around outside in the middle of the night.

Also, at one point in the show, Bert exclaims to Mary, that only chimney sweeps can see the current view. Yet they appear to just be standing outside the house at ground level. The neighbourhood also seems to be suffering from random outbursts of smoke. Throughout the show, blasts of smoke fill the stage – I’m assuming it’s meant to help set the atmosphere for evening settings. But the smoke is so intense that it distracts from the show. When Mary says goodbye to Bert, she’s blasted by a cloud of smoke. I was very happy to see Mary still standing there in one piece when the smoke finally cleared.

The entire family also seems to be sleeping in one bedroom. Whenever the parents or children go to their room, they all go through the same door upstairs, giving the impression that they all share one bedroom. This would be an odd way for them to conserve their financial resources, given how many servants they have working for them. I think I counted more servants than actual family members onstage. And I'm quite confused about why the household needs such a large staff, as it seems to me that most of the time they are just dusting.

It makes things very strange when Mr. Banks discusses the family’s financial instability. It would make sense that the family would cut back on the unnecessary amount of servants, before resorting to being out on the street. But Mr. Banks doesn’t seem to see this logic.

Brad Danyluk’s sound design also leaves much to be desired. On the evening I attended the show, the actors’ microphones continually cut out; and at one point, audiences could hear the actors when they were offstage. Additionally, while the orchestra is quite proficient for the most part, the horn section sounded a little shaky during the overture.

However, there are some wonderful moments in this show. Spinola’s vision of “Anything Can Happen” is stunning. Portraying the stars in the sky, the dancers wear lights on their costumes, and a male and female dance couple do an excellent overhead lift that creates a really cool effect, given their lighted costumes. And as I mentioned, the finale scene where the community gathers to enjoy the fireworks is heartwarming. The whole experience of seeing this ambitious, large-scale musical theatre presentation, in the majestic outdoor setting of Stanley Park is quite wonderful and I highly recommend it.   

TUTS' production of Mary Poppins runs at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park and has been held over to August 26. Visit the TUTS website for more information.