By Lynn Venhaus

When the titular character floats in using her umbrella, carried by the East wind to 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London, it’s a welcome jolt of joy — signaling that a merry time is ahead in this stage musical version of “Mary Poppins.”

And this vibrant, candy colored Muny production of the beloved magical nanny tale is as whimsical as you remember.

Director John Tartaglia makes it sparkly and this cast of 75 brings the magic that he is striving for in his sixth show, hoping to see smiles on a summer night.

The nostalgia factor is high, recalling the sublime Oscar-winning performance of Julie Andrews in the iconic 1964 Disney movie, which is based on P.L. Travers’ series of children’s books, eight of them starting in 1934.

Disney’s crowning live-action achievement was the highest-grossing film of 1964 and garnered 13 Oscar nominations, winning five: (actress, editing, original music score, visual effects, and song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”). During Walt’s lifetime, it was the only one of his films to earn a Best Picture nomination.

With Travers’ permission, master producer Cameron Mackintosh turned the tale into an acclaimed stage musical in London in 2004, which opened on Broadway in 2006, and continued for more than six years. It closed on March 3, 2013, after 2,619 – the 24th longest-running show in Broadway history.

The show is a mix of the movie and the books. The sentimentality is part of its appeal, and this ensemble blends both freshness and fondness for the traditional qualities to please a new generation.

Jeanna de Waal is an ideal Mary, moving with ease, popping in and out with her grace and regal bearing.  She is a good sport for her spectacular flying segments, with seamless effects work by ZFX.

For a little extra insight into the mystical nanny, she projects an air of mystery, indicating there’s more than meets the eye. She also sings like a dream, smoothly cavorting in the newer song “Practically Perfect” and a reworked setting for “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

In fact, this is a cast of glorious voices.

The charismatic and charming Corbin Bleu uses his considerable song and dance skills as the lovable happy-go-lucky Bert. It’s a triumphant return to the Muny following his sensational turn as Don Lockwood in “Singin’ in the Rain” in 2018. He had dazzled critics and audiences alike, winning the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Actor in a Musical. 

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Bleu, who first came to prominence as Chad in the “High School Musical” movies, works well with De Waal and the ensemble — and has a few cool moves I won’t spoil.

That score by Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman is unforgettable – and in fact, some Muny patrons sang along. But the musical is not a replica of the film, for “I Love to Laugh” has been omitted, as has “Sister Suffragette,” “Stay Awake” and “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.”

With a few exceptions, the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe do not seem to be as catchy as the Sherman brothers’ collaborations. Even at a 2 hour and 35 minute-run time, “Anything Can Happen,” delivered in two parts, seems to drag on and on. A little editing of some numbers would have made for a tighter experience.

“The Life I Lead” has been replaced by “Precision and Order,” sung by the stern banker, George Banks. In Julian Fellowes’ book, George is revealed to have had a strict childhood, and the parents are more dysfunctional, with Winifred Banks a former actress who can’t seem to fit in to the elite society, and the two children, Jane and Michael, are naughtier.

The real-life husband-and-wife duo of Nehal Joshi and Erin Davie are splendid in vocals and their character development. Their new songs include “A Man Has Dreams” and “Being Mrs. Banks.” I do wish Mrs. Banks was still a suffragette, as Glynis Johns was so robustly in the film.

The kids are brattier – as played by Laila Fantroy and Gabe Cytron, so they are not likable, especially when acting entitled and wreaking havoc in the kitchen, but their growth results in more compassionate youngsters. Whew!

A new character, Robertson Ay, is a screwball addition, and Barrett Riggins, so deliciously wicked in “Camelot,” shines as the bumbling oh-so-not-helpful houseboy.

Chipper Jade Jones has the versatile three-peat of Katie Nanna, Mrs. Corry and Miss Smythe.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Debby Lennon, two-time St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner, is a hoot as the “Holy Terror!” – aka George’s cruel childhood nanny Miss Andrew – who arrives to get everyone back in ship-shape after the breezy frolics with Mary. She is overbearing in “Brimstone and Treacle Parts 1 and 2.”

A masterful Darlesia Cearcy brings the house down as the Birdwoman at the park, with a superbly executed rendition and reprise of “Feed the Birds.”

Other high points include the jaunty stroll through the park “Jolly Holiday,” the robust showstopper “Step in Time,” a bubbly “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” at Mrs. Corry’s sweet shop and a wondrous “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” with the ensemble placed through the audience with red kites.

First seen in 2013 when the show was led by Muny fan favorites Jenny Powers and Rob McClure, this version is as enchanting, with Tartaglia’s penchant for puppetry giving an added ‘oomph.’

He has created another Muny moment with puppeteers swarming the stage with flocks of birds, produced by puppet designer Eric Wright of Puppet Kitchen International Inc. It’s a marvelous sight.

Tartaglia, such a bouncy personality as evident through his Muny performances (The Genie in “Aladdin,” The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical,” Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical in 2017), has brought a sunny outlook to his productions here.

The director of “Matilda” 2019, Annie” 2018, “The Wizard of Oz” 2016, “Disney’s Tarzan” in 2014 and “Shrek” 2013 is again inspired by the tasks at hand, no doubt influencing his creative choices.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

A crackerjack production team has delivered an attractive look and encouraged high spirits throughout, even with performers dealing with oppressive summer heat. Music Director Brad Haak and Choreographer Patrick O’Neill focused on peppy musical and dance numbers for fluid movement (with a high percentage of youngsters in the audience).

The sights — Paige Hathaway’s production design, Robin L. McGee’s costume design, Kelley Jordan’s wig design and Alex Basco Koch’s video designs are true to the 1910 time of Edwardian London, but with pizzazz.

It’s also nice to see such local treasures as Zoe Vonder Haar (as Mrs. Brill), Whit Reichert (as Admiral Boom/Bank Chairman), Jerry Vogel (as Park Keeper, Von Hussle, ensemble), Rich Pisarkiewicz (Policeman/ensemble), and Lynn Humphrey (Miss Lark/ensemble) back together on the Muny stage.

Does “Mary Poppins” have the same appeal to today’s youths like the movie did for my generation? Not sure if it is a home run as much for them as it is for adults. Nevertheless, the audience left humming a happy tune.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presents the musical “Mary Poppins” July 5-13 at 8:15 pm. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org.

Cast photo by Philip Hamer

            COVID-19 Pandemic Results in Production Streamcast by HEC Media

New Jewish Theatre led the way with six awards at the eighth annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards ceremony on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Max & Louie Productions’ performance of Indecent garnered five awards, followed by four awards to The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis for its production of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Circle’s gala event for this year’s award ceremony, originally scheduled for March 30, 2020 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, was canceled. Instead, HEC Media produced a version of the ceremonies that was streamcast on HEC Media’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/hectv/live/) as well as telecast on Spectrum channel 989 and AT&T U-verse channel 99. Here is the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/tCo0AFHbChE

Awards were given in 31 categories covering comedies, dramas and musicals as well as two categories for opera. In addition, Ken and Nancy Kranzberg received a special award for their philanthropic contributions to the arts and theater in the St. Louis area, including many developments in Grand Center. The awards honored outstanding achievement in locally produced professional theater for the calendar year 2019.

A total of 21 productions and 14 companies were recognized by the awards, including eight individuals who have received honors in previous years. Will Bonfiglio, honored as Outstanding Actor in a Comedy for his performance in New Jewish Theatre’s production of Fully Committed, received an award for the third time in the last four years.

The 2020 presentation featured nominees from two companies, Black Mirror Theatre and The Q Collective, which were represented for the first time in consideration of St. Louis Theater Circle Awards.  Each company received an award for outstanding achievement.

In all, 25 local companies received nominations in 33 categories for comedy, drama, musical and opera, as well as 125 individuals up for awards. Honorees who have previously received St. Louis Theater Circle Awards include Will Bonfiglio, J. Samuel Davis, Kari Ely, Michael Hamilton, Patrick Huber, Sean M. Savoie, Margery and Peter Spack, and Maggie Wininger.

The mission of the St. Louis Theater Circle is simple: To honor St. Louis professional theater. Other cities around the country, such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington D.C., pay tribute to their own local theatrical productions with similar awards programs.

Nominations for the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards were divided into categories for musicals, dramas, comedies and operas.  More than 120 local professional theatrical productions were staged in the St. Louis area in 2019.

Honorees of the eighth annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards are:

Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy

Kelley Weber, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy

Patrick Blindauer, Love’s Labors Lost, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy (tie)

Katie Kleiger, Pride and Prejudice, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Maggie Wininger, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy

Will Bonfiglio, Fully Committed, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Director of a Comedy

Kari Ely, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Production of a Comedy

Brighton Beach Memoirs, New Jewish Theatre

Indecent

Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama

Indecent, Max & Louie Productions

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama

Carly Uding, Translations, Black Mirror Theatre

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama

J. Samuel Davis, District Merchants, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Actress in a Drama

Donna Weinsting, Salt, Root and Roe, Upstream Theater

Outstanding Actor in a Drama

Gary Wayne Barker, District Merchants, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Director of a Drama

Joanne Gordon, Indecent, Max & Louie Productions

Outstanding Production of a Drama

Indecent, Max & Louie Productions

Outstanding Set Design in a Play

Margery and Peter Spack, Brighton Beach Memoirs, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Costume Design in a Play

Felia Davenport, District Merchants, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play

Patrick Huber, Indecent, Max & Louie Productions

Outstanding Sound Design

Phillip Evans, Indecent, Max & Louie Productions

Outstanding Set Design in a Musical

Mary Engelbreit and Paige Hathaway, Matilda, The Muny

Outstanding Costume Design in a Musical

Sarah Porter, La Cage aux Folles, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Musical

Sean M. Savoie, Man of La Mancha, Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Musical Director

Charles Creath, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, The Black Rep

Outstanding Choreographer

Dexandro Montalvo, Such Sweet Thunder, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis,

Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, Nine Network of Public Media

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical

Matilda, The Muny

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical

Taylor Louderman, Kinky Boots, The Muny

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical

Tielere Cheatem, La Cage aux Folles, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Actress in a Musical

Kendra Kassebaum, Guys and Dolls, The Muny

Outstanding Actor in a Musical

Luke Steingruby, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Q Collective

Outstanding Director of a Musical

Michael Hamilton, Man of La Mancha, Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Production of a Musical

Such Sweet Thunder, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis,

Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, Nine Network of Public Media

Outstanding New Play

Nonsense and Beauty, by Scott C. Sickles, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

La Boheme

Outstanding Achievement in Opera (tie)

Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Roland Wood, Rigoletto, Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Production of an Opera

La Boheme, Union Avenue Opera

Special Award

Ken and Nancy Kranzberg

Members of the St. Louis Theater Circle include Steve Allen, stagedoorstl.com; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Tina Farmer, KDHX; Michelle Kenyon, snoopstheatrethoughts.com; Gerry Kowarsky, Two on the Aisle (HEC Media); Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX; Sarah Bryan Miller, St.Louis Post-Dispatch; Judith Newmark, judyacttwo.com; Ann Lemons Pollack, stlouiseats.typepadcom; Tanya Seale, Broadwayworld.com; Lynn Venhaus, PopLifeSTL.com; Bob Wilcox, Two on the Aisle (HEC Media); and Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.Eleanor Mullin, local actress and arts supporter, is the group’s administrator. 

For more information, contact [email protected] or ‘like’ The St. Louis Theater Circle on Facebook.

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