This is what musical theater is supposed to be.
Big. Bold. Joyful. Colorful. And most of all, fun. Really, really fun.
The Community Theatre of Howell accomplishes all that and more with its current production, “Mary Poppins.” It’s one of the most flat-out enjoyable productions you’ll ever see, and of all the adjectives you can attach to it, nothing describes it better than “fun.”
The show opened last weekend at the Howell High School Freshman Campus, and continues this weekend (Nov. 20-22). Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available at www.cththeatre.org, and you should do yourself a favor and get some.
This “Mary Poppins” is the stage musical version of the beloved Julie Andrews film that we all saw a million times when we were kids. The stage version opened in London in 2004, and it’s become a hit around the world since then.
There are a few differences between the film and stage versions, but it’s basically the same great story. The magical nanny Mary Poppins arrives out of the sky to set things right on Cherry Tree Lane, where the dysfunctional Banks family lives. Jane and Michael are acting like brats to get the attention of their parents, George and Winifred. In the middle of it all is a jack-of-all-trades chimney sweep named Bert who acts as a sort of narrator for everything.
CTH director Sherry Randall and consulting director Vera Cunningham have done a brilliant job bringing Cherry Tree Lane to Howell. Their production is lively and colorful and literally bursts off the stage. And to be sure, they’re blessed with an extraordinary cast. Not just excellent leads, but quality performances throughout.
And oh, the dances! But more on those later.
As Mary Poppins, Kelly Hayner is making her first appearance on the Howell stage. Here’s hoping she never leaves it. She IS Mary Poppins, bringing an effortless sort of confidence to the role that works perfectly. She’s funny, she’s bright, her singing is incredible and she truly embodies the role. Every so often, you see an actor who was born to play a role. That’s the case here.
CTH veteran John Hess returns to the stage as Bert, and he’s as likable and fun as ever here. Hess is one of the best song-and-dance men the CTH stage has ever seen, and he turns in one of his absolute best performances here. He bring a special poignancy to the role, and shines in every musical number.
The roles of Jane and Michael are double cast, and all four of the youngsters have talent beyond their years. Aimee Bean and Makenna Usher play Jane, while Aidan Bradley and Nic Bishop play Michael. What’s especially impressive about each of them is that they show a range of emotions during the performance. The tendency among some young actors in musicals is that they play every scene at the same level – usually LOUD – but these four are understated when they need to be, happy when they need to be, and yes, LOUD when they need to be. Each of their performances is pitch-perfect.
The stage version of “Mary Poppins” gives George Banks a bit more to do than the film version, and Brent Bishop does an excellent job showing us George’s transformation from aloof banker to doting dad. As Winifred Banks, Sarah Budke brings a beautiful voice to the role – along with some excellent comic timing. This is a versatile actress, to be sure.
There are standout performances throughout. Much of the comedy in the show comes from Becky Hess as the grumpy cook Mrs. Brill and Floyid Mockbil as the dense Robertson Ay (some of the biggest laughs come courtesy of his slapstick). Likewise, John Bennett brings a great comedic touch to the role of the Bank Chairman.
Speaking of comedy, one of the biggest scene-stealers in the show is Annelise Hoshal as the evil nanny Miss Andrew. She has one big scene in the show, and she knocks it out of the park.
Special mention also has to be made of the vocals in the show, and credit vocal director Bethany Bean for making the music shine. The big musical numbers are outstanding – really outstanding – but one of the best moments in the show is perhaps the quietest song in the show.
The song is the beautiful and melodic “Feed the Birds,” and it’s sung brilliantly by Claire Blauer as the Bird Woman. Walt Disney reportedly said that this was his favorite song ever – which is saying a lot – and Blauer’s rendition would have made Walt ecstatic.
And now, about those dances.
If there’s one element of this production that elevates it from good to WOW, it’s the big dance numbers, choreographed to perfection by Maria Usher. It starts in Act 1 with “Jolly Holiday,” as park statues Mackenzie Elliott, Sara Johnson, Chelsie Martindale, Lottie Moorehouse and Sierra Tennyson, with GraceAnne Laituri as Athena, come to life in spectacular fashion. And it just gets bigger and better from there.
The showstopper in Act 1 is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” kicked off by the wild-haired Mrs. Corry (Elissa Mockbil). The high-kicking production comes out into the aisles, as they truly raise the roof.
The cast then tops it in Act 2 with “Step in Time,” featuring Bert’s tap-dancing chimney-sweep pals. This has to be one of the biggest tap-dancing numbers the CTH stage has ever seen, and it’s out of this world. On opening weekend, the audience was clapping and cheering and smiling throughout.
Special mention also has to go to the special effects in this show, particularly the innovative and creative way they make use of a full-projection backdrop. And the costumes and makeup are colorful and spot-on (the park statues actually LOOK like park statues).
If there’s a message in “Mary Poppins,” it’s that we all need to be nice. Kids needs to be nice to their parents, parents need to be nice to their kids, we all need to be nice to birds. CTH delivers that message in a way that will have you humming and singing for days afterward.
To quote Mary Poppins herself, it’s “practically perfect in every way.”