Theater & Dance
Review
"Mary Poppins"

By: Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; book by Julian Fellows; new songs, music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe; co-created by Cameron Mackintosh
Produced by: Berkeley Playhouse
Featuring: Taylor Jones as Mary Poppins, Alex Rodriguez as Bert. And Tierra Allen, MacKenzie Conway, Chris Cruz, Mary Gibboney, Chelsea Holifield, Stephanie Kahalekulu, Doug Kaufman, Melissa Martinez, Molly Millett, Sarah Mitchell, Matt Ono, Neal Pascua, Samantha Pistoresi, Danny Quezada, Billy Raphael, Tom Reardon, Linsay Rousseau, Leslie Waggoner and Kenny Wang. Youth and teen casts include Anna Campbell, Chiara Abondolo-Mayo, Charlotte Curtin, Milo Blue, Emma Curtin, Lucy Barretto, Cayden Feely, Dakota Dry, Eliza Grown, Pippa Kennedy, Jacob Henrie-Naffaa, Clementine Leonard, Luka Henrie-Naffaa, Ariana Rukin, Naomi Kaufman, David Rukin, Julia Kaufman Sommers, Leah Sulzberg, Jacob Kwong, Anya Van Noord, Malia Lee and Tori Vance
Directed and choreographed by: Kimberly Dooley
Musical direction by: Meghan Michelle McGovern
When: October 30 through December 7, 2014
Where: Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Avenue, Berkeley, California
Tickets: $17-$60. Call 510-845-8542, extension 351, or visit https://tickets.
berkeleyplayhouse.org

Rodriguez, Jones
Ben Krantz Studio / Berkeley Playhouse
Alex Rodriguez as Bert, left, and Taylor Jones as Mary Poppins stroll the streets of London in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of "Mary Poppins," directed by Kimberly Dooley. The musical runs at the Julia Morgan Theater, October 30 through December 7, 2014.
Life's a jolly 'oliday
with 'Mary Poppins'
Berkeley Playhouse stages a charming, fast-paced production
of the magical tale of family love
November 5, 2014

"Mary Poppins" was a delightful movie musical, with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Walt Disney working their magic.

As a stage musical, it can be a big, clunky, overlong slog with occasional bright moments. But Berkeley Playhouse is to be congratulated for making it, almost throughout, fun and charming, thanks to zippy timing, a good cast with a few brilliant players, a lot of charming children, and a great band.

This production has all the tasty music and cute gags, but what makes it really work is how it drives home the musical's essential meaning, that it is family that is important, that is, in fact, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Directed and choreographed by Kimberly Dooley, this show does not waste time between its many scenes. A number finishes, and excellent music director Meghan Michelle McGovern pushes the band right into the next tune — or Alex Rodriguez, as Bert, plays a flute, or a clarinet, and/or a drum strapped to his back, and maybe delivers a little soliloquy.

The rapid pacing helps quite a bit. This production moves along a lot faster than the road show that passed through San Jose a couple of years ago, and we may all be grateful.

And on opening night, the big, open-rafters barn of the Julia Morgan Theatre was filled with families, with very enthusiastic parents and children applauding the show whenever possible, making for an even more fun time.

Speaking of that road show, it had bigger, flashier, more expensive sets, but scenic designer Martin Flynn did extremely well for the Berkeley production, with front doors, inside doors, walls, beds, tables, statue plinths and many other set pieces rolling quietly in and getting set quite efficiently. (The only fly in that ointment was the door through the wall to Mr. Banks' home office, which tended to move alarmingly when he closed it. Oh well.)

The extremely beautiful Taylor Jones drew a round of applause just for entering the set as Mary Poppins. Was the applause just for her, because she has appeared at Berkeley Playhouse before? Or was it because Mary Poppins had finally arrived?

Jones is a very good actress and fun to watch. I most enjoyed watching her face during the wonderful "Step in Time" tap-dancing number in Act II; very focused. It worked for that wild number, somehow. She is quite stern as need be as the magical nanny, and yet manages to always show her love for children. Fine job.

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Jones is a good singer, but she doesn't have the rich, golden tones of Julie Andrews, who set the benchmark. True, it's not fair to make that comparison, in a way, but accept it, and enjoy what Jones does, anyway. (I also was not impressed by Rachel Wallace's singing voice in that road show.)

Rodriguez, who is one of the most talented musical performers I've seen, is a good Bert, the chimney sweep/lamplighter/street sweeper/artist/busker. He has a line about his mum or dad telling him to learn an odd job, so he learned them all. When he was in "Evita" at Broadway by the Bay, The Daily News reviewer Joanne Engelhardt said the show should have been renamed "Che" for the strength and importance of his performance. When I saw him as the MC in "Cabaret," he was the power that drove the entire show.

But this show is called "Mary Poppins," not "Bert," so there is a limit to the magic he can work. He and Jones make a good Bert and Mary, and are charming together for such numbers as "Jolly Holiday" and others.

The child performers rotate in two casts. The night I was there, Luka Henrie-Naffaa was Michael, the youngest Banks child. He was fun to watch. He sometimes seemed to have a little confusion about movement, but delivered most of his lines with fine comic delivery — "We'd better keep an eye on this one," he says, after he and his sister witness some of Mary Poppins' magic.

Julia Kaufman-Sommers is solid and charming as Jane, the other Banks child.

In the alternate cast, Chiara Abondolo-Mayo is Michael, and Dakota Dry is Jane.

Tom Reardon was wonderful to watch as Mr. Banks, the father who is very stern and doesn't have much time for his children, and expects Mrs. Banks to run a proper household that will be respected by the "right" people.

The easy part was getting the stern stuff in; the brilliant part comes as he worries about losing his income and hurting his family, as his love for his family comes to the surface. It's a key lesson of the show, and one that is expanded for the musical from what was in the movie. I've seen Reardon several times, and this is my favorite of his performances.

By the way, his blurb in the program doesn't mention that he is also Judge Thomas Reardon, of the Alameda County Superior Court. He has sat for some fairly big trials.

Sarah Mitchell, oft seen at Berkeley Playhouse, was quite good and in fine voice as Mrs. Banks. She brings that subservience to the husband that would have been expected in the era of this play, and that must seem like alien behavior in the Free State of Berkeley.

Linsay Rousseau is fabulous as Miss Andrews, the evil nanny of "Brimstone and Treacle" fame. An opera singer and a very dramatic actress, Rousseau does amazing things with her voice that make "Brimstone and Treacle" both more terrifying and more funny than I've ever seen it performed before. Brava!

Mary Gibboney is solid, character-actor fun as the cook, Mrs. Brill, playing it over the top and making it a lot of fun.

Lemme tell ya about this band. Theater ensembles that have trumpet players and clarinet players who stay consistently on key and don't hit sour notes are more rare than PowerBall lotto winners. But Brett Klein on trumpet and Keith Leung on reeds were excellent throughout, which is a complete gift to our ears. Also excellent: The aforementioned McGovern on keys, Eryn Allen on keys, Albert Aumentado on trombone and Dominic Moisant on percussion. Job well done, all.

The cast is huge, sometimes with dozens of people on stage, and it's all quite fun. I like that in the program, the child performers get little blurb paragraphs just like the adults.

Sound, engineered and designed by Mike Sweeney, was mostly good, except that the tone on Rodriguez's face mic was quite tinny. And there were occasional incongruous sounds that may have been someone's face mic being left on when it shouldn't have been, or sound effects out of place. Who knows? Mark Hueske's lighting design was excellent throughout, except, if you happen to be 6-foot-1 and sitting in seat E2, the follow spot will hit the mirror in the children's bedroom and shoot right into your eyes, which is unpleasant. I am the voice of experience.

Aerial rigging by Karl Gillick looked like it made an unpleasant experience for Ms. Jones in Mary Poppins' flying scenes. She seemed to rise into the air in jerky fits and starts, which couldn't have been much fun. Gotta hope that can be smoothed out.

Props by Megan Lush for the most part worked well, with the exception of the magical wiring for a dessert cake, and the poor "lark" that Ms. Jones nearly had to break to get it out of its cage, which added a bit of inappropriate drama to the scene.

The stage musical is somewhat different than the movie, with a some scenes missing altogether and some bits from the P.L. Travers' stories that were not in the movie. Lots of wonderful songs. "Feed the Birds," sung by Bird Woman Tierra Allen and Jones, is beautiful. "Jolly Holiday" is, in fact, jolly. "A Spoonful of Sugar" is used quite differently on stage than in the movie, but works just fine. "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is also presented differently, but is perhaps more fun than the movie. "Chim Chim Cher-ee" is beautiful, and "Anything Can Happen" is really the key to the entire show. It is a delight to hear this full cast deliver this beautiful music.

It was my first visit to the Julia Morgan Theatre, and there was more I liked about it than I didn't like. Parking can be a nightmare, I suspect, although my arthritic knees and I are grateful I lucked into a parking spot right across the street. It's great that they sell pizza, hot dogs, beer and wine, and that any of it can be brought into the auditorium. They take credit cards! Yay!

My seat was old and beat-up, but supported my overly massive body without creaking. The auditorium itself is completely charming, with its open rafters and side areas. The audience was very enthusiastic and full of families and fun, although some of them were annoying when they stopped in doorways for chats with friends at intermission, completely blocking the ingress and egress of others. Really, didn't their nannies teach them anything about not being rude?

Email John Orr at johnorr@regardingarts.com

Tom Reardon
Ben Krantz Studio / Berkeley Playhouse
Tom Reardon as George Banks demands “Precision and Order,” in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of "Mary Poppins," directed by Kimberly Dooley. Running at the Julia Morgan Theater, October 30 through December 7, 2014.
Henrie-Naffaa, Kaufman Sommers
Ben Krantz Studio / Berkeley Playhouse
Luka Henrie-Naffaa as Michael, left, and Julia Kaufman Sommers as Jane sing a list traits for “The Perfect Nanny,” in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of "Mary Poppins."
gibboney, Raphael
Ben Krantz Studio / Berkeley Playhouse
Mary Gibboney as Mrs. Brill, left, and and Billy Raphael as Robertson Ay lament the lot of the working class in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of "Mary Poppins."


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