‘Mary Poppins’ Ready to Fly High for Our Gang Players

Aug 08, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

The Our Gang Players will perform “Mary Poppins” at 7 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, Aug. 11 and 12, and at 4 p.m. this Sunday, Aug. 13, at Barnegat High School’s Bengal Theatre.

“Mary Poppins” the musical is based on the 1964 Disney movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and on the Mary Poppins book series by English author P.L. Travers. It opened in London’s West End (the only Disney musical to play in England before the United States) in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006.

Mary Poppins (played by Jessica Vitalo in Our Gang’s production) is one of the most interesting characters in the world of children’s literature. This nanny can fly, she can perform magic; she can be stern, she can be cheery; she is always mysterious. Just where did she come from, and how long has she known and what is her relationship with Bert (Eddie Itte), a Cockney jack-of-all-trades, including chimney sweeping, who also seems to have a touch of magical ability about him?

“Mary Poppins” and Our Gang have a unique connection. In 2008 a young girl from Barnegat, Kelsey Fowler, who had gotten her onstage start with Our Gang, started playing Mary Banks on Broadway. She would remain there for 22 months before taking off to play the role on national tour for an additional seven months. Our Gang sponsored a bus trip to see the NYC show.

The Broadway show was a spectacular production. Mary Poppins not only flew, she flew so high into the heavens of the New Amsterdam before disappearing that this writer remembers being frightened for the actress. Broadway’s Mary also could slide up banisters – yes, up – and restore a crumbling Edwardian set with a wave of her hand. Statues came to life; chimney sweeps danced. But it was Bert who stole the Broadway show, tap dancing all around the proscenium arch – up one side, upside down across the stage, and down the other side. It was a wow moment!

How will Our Gang deal with a show that blew critics away with a magnificent set and more magical special effects than a David Copperfield extravaganza? After all, the troupe obviously can’t match Broadway in terms of technology and budget.

Unfortunately this writer can’t say how Our Gang downsized the show. Our Gang wasn’t able to move into the Bengal Theatre until Monday and the first evening had to be spent teaching the crew how to safely fly Vitalo, a special effect that simply couldn’t be discarded. The first full run-through of the show wouldn’t occur until Tuesday evening, after The SandPaper had gone to press.

The show, though, has some elements that are sure to please.

Most of the show’s music and lyrics were written by the Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, the most prolific songwriting team in the history of motion-picture musicals who, besides “Mary Poppins,” composed the scores of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Jungle Book,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Aristocats” among dozens of others. Their most famous song, which won a Best Original Song Academy Award, comes from “Mary Poppins” – “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” And, of course, there’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” a title grade-schoolers will probably never tire of saying.

“Step in Time,” which features Bert, Mary, Jane, Michael and the chimneysweeps dancing on the rooftops of London, is one of the greatest dance numbers in theatrical history, even without Bert tapping upside down above the stage.

The storyline, too, is a classic. The show opens with Katie Nanna (Carly Dove), the Banks’ nanny, storming out of Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Jane and Michael are simply insufferable – the family’s cook and maid Mrs. Brill (Lisa Jones) says it is like living in a madhouse. So the kids write up an advertisement for a new nanny, “The Perfect Nanny.” Their father, George (Brendan Flanagan), rips up their advertisement and throws it in the fire. But somehow Mary Poppins suddenly arrives, producing, of all things, the restored advertisement!

As Mary attempts to rein in the children, it becomes clear they’re not the only people at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with problems. George, a banker, spends more time worrying about making money than paying attention to his family. His wife, Winifred (Laurie Toole), is a former actress who seems to be suffering from permanent postpartum depression, who knows she is disappointing her husband and children as a wife and mother.

Many of the lessons Mary Poppins instills in the Banks children come from trips around London. When Jane and Michael first meet Bert, for example, they are wary of him due to his disheveled appearance. But Mary soon teaches them they must look past appearances, employing her magic to bring the park’s statues to life.

It is their next trip, though, that sets up the rest of the show’s plotline. Mary and the children visit George at his office, where he is deciding whom the bank should back – Van Hussler (Jessica Davies) and her complicated money-making scheme, or Northbrook (Brian Sodano), a man who simply wants to build a factory. George is leaning toward Van Hussler (her name alone should illuminate her character), but Jane asks a question that turns him toward Northbrook (“What’s more important, a good man or a good idea?”).

After leaving the bank Mary introduces the kids to the “Bird Woman” (Carly Dove), a beggar who sells bags of crumbs to people so they can feed the birds and, indirectly, herself. Once again, Mary teaches the children not to look down on those less fortunate than themselves. On the way home they stop at a shop owned by Mrs. Corry (Lindsey Monaco), who, along with her daughters Fannie (Meg Sodano) and Annie (Jaclyn Itte), sells not only sweets, but also words. Wanna guess what word the kids are most intrigued by?

So, Jane and Michael are in a great mood when they return home. But George is in a foul mood indeed. His decision not to back Van Hussler has cost his bank dearly, and he has been suspended without pay by the bank chairman (Neil Goldstein). So, in a rage, he sends his children off to their nursery. The brother and sister, as young brothers and sisters are prone to do, get into a huge argument over Jane’s favorite doll, Valentine. Mary sends the kids to bed and, after they are enchanted to sleep, Valentine and other toys come to life to help Mary teach the children how to get along with each other and take better care of their toys.

Mary decides the kids need some time to mull over their lessons, so she leaves Cherry Tree Lane (Poppins gives her game away – she pops in and pops out), leaving the children a note that says she may return.

Winifred decides to hire her husband’s old nanny, Miss Andrew (Sara Targett), who proves to be a brutal tyrant, so much so that upon first sight George runs out of the house screaming, “the Holy Terror!”

Oh boy, things have gone badly, very badly, in the Banks household. Will Mary Poppins return to save the day?

Come on, of course she does.

“Mary Poppins” can be a delightful show, a great show for families, a good way for parents to introduce their children to the magic of musical theater. This writer, for one, can’t wait to see how well Our Gang pulls it off and hopes readers agree.

Tickets for “Mary Poppins” are $20 for adults and $15 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at ourgang.org, by phone at 609-597-0553 or at the door.

— Rick Mellerup


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