Whether election hangover, the stress of the pending holiday season or something more personal, everyone needs a little escape now and then, and Stockton Civic Theatre’s production of “Mary Poppins,” which previewed Wednesday and Thursday and opens tonight, is just the tonic.
It goes down better than a spoonful of sugar. Superbly cast and executed by director Kevin Costello, “Mary Poppins” has everything — from Brian Johnson’s set to the costumes of Cathy Hastings and Kathie Dixon — to transport the audience to 1910 England, away from nagging contemporary issues to the woes of the Banks family.
Lydia Kaye, who is never anything but delightful on stage, literally flies in as Mary Poppins to rescue these wounded people, and proceeds to carry the show, and the audience, along on her magic ride.
Written by Julian Fellowes, best known to audiences for creating “Downton Abbey,” the Broadway story of “Mary Poppins” provides a deeper glimpse of the Edwardian age through the demands on George Banks and the efforts of his wife, Winifred, a one-time actress, to perfect her role as a wife. But, in delving into that story, “Mary Poppins” doesn’t abandon the humor and fun of the beloved 1964 movie in which a nanny, a force of nature, rights the Banks family by turning the household upside down .
There are no dancing penguins, but Evelyn Barney’s outstanding choreography to the familiar, beloved songs of the film move “Mary Poppins,” a two-hour, 15-minute show, along in a snap.
Kaye is more than “practically perfect” as Mary Poppins. She has the right mix of charm and smarts, her soprano voice is perfect for the music and she dances with grace and verve. What’s special is the relationships she has on stage with the rest of the cast. She helps Anisa Barney and Eliot Waldvogel shine as Jane and Michael, bonding with them not only as children, but as people. That they’re having fun in one another’s company is never in doubt. Much is expected of the children’s roles. They are on stage almost throughout, and both are remarkably poised. Maybe they know they really are in good hands with this Mary Poppins at their side.
The same chemistry exists between Kay and John Thiel, as Bert, who narrates the story. Thiel started dancing when he was 6, in one of Barney’s classes, and he’s always loved Dick Van Dyke’s dancing in the movie. Not only does the long-legged Thiel match Van Dyke’s physicality of Bert, especially in the acrobatic “Step in Time,” he easily pulls off the role of the free spirit who adores Mary, is wise and can dispense his common sense observations without overstepping his bounds.
“Step in Time” is the show-stopping number, but "Let's Go Fly a Kite" is a second-act winner and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is the high point of the first act, with a better scene construct than in the movie. Not only is the choreography dazzling, but the costumes are bright and fun, just like the song.
The harder roles in this rollicking story are that of George and Winifred Banks, but Costello struck gold in casting Matt Voyer and Ashlyn Kelley.
Voyer returned to the stage earlier this year and auditioned for “Mary Poppins” just because he wanted to be a part of the show. Voyer is superb as George, both as the detached father of the era and the man who comes to understand the folly of that mentality and abandons those societal strictures.
Kelley, a newcomer to SCT, is up to the challenge of Winifred, the doting wife who seems out of her league in keeping her children and her husband happy. She doesn’t give up, though, and endures her own setbacks before unveiling the backbone and courage she needs to save her family.
The Banks’ family story is deep and bit dark, including the back story of George’s upbringing, but this is a family show, and Costello made the unique choice of casting Cole Bryant as George’s one-time nanny, Miss Andrew.
Bryant makes it work by playing the role straight. Miss Andrew is fierce and mean, and he clearly relishes the opportunity of being the most evil character in the show. His over-the-top mean is funny, not scary for children.
This “Mary Poppins” is deeper than the film, but it never loses its charm or forgets its target audience. It’s still a kids’ show, that rare story where the children matter. Sometimes they’re naughty. Sometimes they’re funny. Always, their story is significant to the production.
By the time the show previewed on Wednesday, nearly 80 percent of tickets for the 18-show run had been sold. “Mary Poppins” is a beloved classic. It never gets old, never goes out of style. It can only be improved upon and Costello has done just that.
— Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.