Encore’s “Mary Poppins” warms and delights without taking flight
The following review is based on a preview performance
DEXTER, Mich. – It just goes to show you that a theater can put on a very successful Mary Poppins without making the legendary nanny or Chimney Sweep Bert fly across the stage.
The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter seems to be hitting on a formula for filling seats, choosing shows that are guaranteed crowd pleasers for the Dexter family-oriented community. It is already advertising a near sell-out for this run, and it scored the same for My Fair Lady last August. To its credit, though, it recently staged a successful run of the somewhat racier The Full Monty, so it’s not all Disney and Hallmark-card shows.
Director Thalia Schramm did herself a lot of favors putting on what is generally a pretty big show in the small space of the Encore by casting with veterans up and down the lineup, from the leads to the ensemble; from multiple Wilde Award winner Sebastian Gerstner as Burt to Equity actor Olivia Hernandez as Mary Poppins to Wilde Award winner Wendy Katz Hiller as Mrs. Brill and top-flight and familiar talents such as Gayle Martin, Dale Dobson, 2016 Wilde Award nominee Paige Martin, Luciana Piazza, Bryana Hall and Equity actor Amy Dolan-Malaney in the ensemble.
Hernandez is utterly solid as Mary Poppins, with spot-on bright pitch-perfect vocals and the projected sunniness you need in the title role. I’m not sure she achieves the transcendent magical glow one looks for with Mary, but she comes so close that the audience more than delights in her “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and “Spoonful of Sugar.” Gerstner plays an almost under-stated Bert, or maybe it seems that way because the supporting players and ensemble is so strong around him. He is funny and friendly, and a good match for Hernandez, and he leads a show-stopping “Step in Time” with much of the ensemble joining him with tap-shoes. A shout-out to choreographer Rachel Constantino for creating enough energy on stage that we never missed the flying.
And the kids in the cast, often hard to cast well, more than hold their own with the grown-ups. Dana Steiner as Jane Banks has strong stage presence and excellent timing. Connor Casey as Michael Banks is similarly poised and inhabits the part with a knowing quality – no doubt do to with having played the same part in Ann Arbor’s Young People Theatre’s production, as well as having taken a few turns with Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. The Banks kids are triple cast for the run of the show.
The set design by Kristen Gribben is hand-painted, right down to the wainscoting in the Banks’ living room. At first, it feels a bit amateurish. But you come to quickly realize that they are going for a pop-up storybook effect. This, it turns out, was a good choice by the creative team. The stage is broken up into three visual tiers – the foreground where the action in The Banks’ living room or London streets take place, the upstairs of the Bank’s home, and a London skyline in the background created simply with colored/painted boards. By not being overly ambitious with the Encore’s small space, the focus stays on the magic happening amongst the actors and the delightful music led by 2016 Wilde Award winning music director Tyler Driskill. If I have a question about any of the production qualities, it might be lighting. At times, it feels like the players are not properly or adequately lit in the scenes taking place in the Banks home – almost like the lights aren’t bright enough. But it is a small thing.
The set pieces work hard with lots of swinging pieces and hinges that allow the scenes to change from inside the Banks’ home to London street exteriors. The movements of the pieces are handled very smoothly by actors and a couple of grips who moved fast and deliberately; their rehearsal time showed.
The Encore’s Mary Poppins is a delightful time. There is so much talent on the stage that it feels like a modern take on That’s Entertainment. Running time is about 2:30 with a brief intermission. With all the magic that can be packed on to a small stage, who needs the flying as long as hearts soar. And they do.