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Who says that young people today have a short attention span and communicate only through texting? In the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on Friday evening, dozens of children under the age of twelve were polite, attentive, and (upon being interviewed) well-spoken. They were also enthralled by the two and a half hour theatrical extravaganza they were attending, as well they should be. The US National Tour of Mary Poppins opened in Charlotte on Thursday, August 26, and will close on Sunday, September 12, after 22 performances.
When a fictional work has been dramatized as successfully as P.L. Travers' stories were in the Academy Award-winning Walt Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, it takes courage to adapt the work as a stage musical. Cameron Mackintosh, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe omitted five songs from the movie and added seven written in the same style. Five of the nine songs retained from the movie have added material in order to match a slightly changed story. Winifred Banks is no longer a suffragette but now a former actress. There is an edgy antagonism between Winifred and George Banks, and between the children Michael and Jane, who are a little cruel to each other and less collaborative than in the movie. I was comfortable with these changes, but not so happy with the appearance of a rather young Queen Victoria on stage. The movie, and the Travers stories, are decidedly Edwardian, clearly set in 1910 London, while the stage musical is somewhere vaguely in the nineteenth century.
This touring production is distinguished in its costumes and its stage lighting, with great color sense displayed throughout. The sets, while showing compromises to enable easy breakdown and moving, work well. Particularly striking was the park scene that evoked Sunday in the Park with George.
Caroline Sheen was Mary in the British National Tour and repeats admirably in the US National Tour. Twenty-seven-year-old Dominic Roberts (Bert the chimney sweep) was a chorus member in the original Broadway cast of Mary Poppins. Laird Mackintosh of the Stratford (Ontario) Festival and the National Ballet of Canada plays George Banks. Blythe Wilson of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) plays Winifred Banks. In order to handle eight performances a week, there is a double cast for the children's parts. Opening night and Friday this week, Talon Ackerman was Michael and Camille Mancuso was Jane.
The children I interviewed mostly found their favorite actor to be Caroline Sheen, but one perceptive young nine-year-old singled out Camille Mancuso and I agreed. Aged eleven and now a member of her fourth National Tour, this young actress from Columbus, Ohio has a fine singing voice and remarkable stage presence. She held her own with Ms. Sheen, Mr. Roberts and the other adult members of the cast.
Mary VanArsdel was impressive as the Bird Woman. Ellen Harvey was suitably evil as Miss Andrew (an added role not in the movie). "The nanny from Hell" provides a very effective contrast to the "perfect nanny," Mary Poppins. Both VanArsdel and Harvey can hit high C's with some ease, although they are more natural as mezzo sopranos. In the show-stopping scene in which the chimney sweep walks up, across and down the proscenium arch, Roberts showed the advantage of his background as a gymnast before turning to theater.
In short, the company now on tour is a mixture of British, American and Canadian actors who demonstrate good to excellent voices and remarkable dancing and stage action. The seventeen-member pit orchestra is quite comfortable with the score. The only consistently jarring element was the audio system. The amplification of voices was excessive and the electronic processing of the vocal sound was not high quality. Voices frequently sounded strident and narrowly compressed, missing the highest frequencies and the extreme low frequencies.