Beck Center certainly has the magic touch when it comes to holiday shows. In recent years, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and Annie have been luring in families in droves, filling the main-stage house with patrons who are really easy to see over if you're seated behind them. Those short human beings, reputedly children, bring along their handlers and the result is sold-out performances.
And so it is with Beck's newest December extravaganza, Mary Poppins. This is a popular show since kids love to watch children, Jane and Michael in this case, being watched over by a nanny who has magic powers. Sure, you're thinking, keeping kids in line would be a lot easier if you could take to the skies with only an umbrella in hand.
Of course, those acts of wonder are why Poppins can come on like a prim egocentric martinet, snapping her fingers while the rugrats jump to her tune. As directed by the estimable Scott Plate, this show offers a plethora of lovely moments, thanks to a strong cast and one particularly dazzling staging effect.
As you surely know from the smiley Julie Andrews movie and/or the more dour Broadway version that is more true to the original source material, Poppins shows up on the doorstep of the Banks family. This is after the kids have run other nannies to the ground with their beastly behavior. Beastly for England at the turn of the last century, that is. I'd like to see how Poppins would handle contemporary kids who are armed with their own magic devices, complete with glowing screens. She'd probably take the first bumbershoot out of town.
In a trice, Poppins has the kids marching in lockstep, on her way to making the Banks family, especially frosty daddy George, all huggy and warm. In the titular role, Rebecca Pitcher sings like a lark in songs such as "Practically Perfect" and " A Spoonful of Sugar." Sure, she's mostly stage-bound — no cables flying her around — but she does just enough to convey the no-nonsense vibe of the Poppins family management system. However, it would be nice if Pitcher could summon up a bit more edge and make Mary a more interesting force.
In the Dick van Dyke role of chimney sweep Bert, the always likable Matthew Ryan Thompson sings and dances well. But he also could take a few more chances with his part, using his inventive performance chops to make Bert a memorable and entertaining presence.
As for the Banks family, Katherine DeBoer uses her fine voice to support several tunes. Curt Arnold is properly stuffy as George, until his "supercalifragil — yadda, yadda" transformation at the hands of La Poppins. And the kids are great: Anna Barrett and Joseph Daso as Jane and Michael avoid the cutesy trap and never become irritating. That's a huge relief.
Other notable performances are turned in by Lissy Gulick as the feisty maid Mrs. Brill and Amiee Collier, who spits nails as the nasty nanny Miss Andrew. Her solo, "Brimstone and Treacle," is a highlight as she gleefully trills, "Brimstone and treacle and carbolic soap/These are the tools of my trade/With spoonfuls of sugar you don't have a hope/Of seeing that changes are made."
Some of the lesser-known tunes by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman are often witty and lovely. In the later category is one of the sweetest songs ever written for movies or stage, "Feed the Birds," which is intoned beautifully by Peggy Gibbons.
Easily matching the wonderful songs are the video effects conjured by Mike Tutaj. Projecting a galaxy of colors and shapes across a collage of umbrellas mounted on the back wall, above the London skyline, this single video trick never becomes tiresome. And when there are birds flying across it, you just want to bundle it all up, throw it in your car trunk and take it home.
It's a damn shame the stage version of MP doesn't include the Uncle Albert scene from the movie, featuring the jolly gentleman who floats up to the ceiling when he laughs. I have no idea how you could do it, but my god, what a showstopper that would be.
The only real off notes in this production are some slow and meandering moments when the propulsion of the story and songs seems to wilt a bit. This will no doubt be handled in time, as the cast and crew get more accustomed to moving Jeff Herrmann's handsome, period set pieces on and off the Beck stage.
Indeed, as good as this Mary Poppins is, it may be even better next year, when most of the production challenges have been worked out and there's more time to focus on refining and amplifying these much-loved characters.