When the cast list came out for “Mary Poppins,” Theatre Baton Rouge seemed to send a not-very-subtle message: Management may have changed, but the standards haven’t.
Despite some significant opening-night technical glitches, the message was affirmed.
Vocally, this may be as strong a group as TBR has assembled in recent memory, including last year’s summer musical, “Les Miserables.” It’s not just that lead roles like Mary Poppins (played by Melanie Couvillon) and George and Winifred Banks (Albert Nolan and Celeste Angelle Veillon) were awarded to musical veterans. Supporting roles were filled with singers — Dana Todd Lux, Rosalind Reynard, Richard Williams and Erin Woolworth — who have starred in previous productions, and the ensemble was similarly filled with established voices.
The result was delightful, as the play’s familiar tunes — “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifgragilisticexpialidocious” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” — came across with luscious sound. Under Terry Bowman’s musical direction, the big choral numbers also had distinct enunciation, so even the rapid-fire words didn’t get muddy.
Couvillon played Poppins’ with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and Nolan and Veillon were spot-on as the distant, Type-A husband/father and the wife trying to find her place in his social world and as a mother. Lux, who is making a specialty of slightly over-the-top roles, had brief but enjoyable appearances as the austere nanny, Miss Andrew.
The three other major roles also were in more-than-capable hands, including the return of an actor who has gone on to bigger and better things.
Zachary Denham first appeared on this stage in 2006 when it was called Baton Rouge Little Theater and he went by Zac. Even in minor roles that year in “My Fair Lady,” Denham stood out. Theatrical presence is hard to describe but impossible to ignore. Denham had it then, and has it now.
What he also has now, having worked professionally in New York and in national tours, are confidence and maturity. It shows. Denham sings adequately, dances well and has a character actor’s face that serves the role of Bert, the chimney sweep and man of many talents, perfectly. It is good to see him on this stage again. Local theater patrons may not get many more opportunities.
Molly Beth Blanchard and newcomer Joey Roth are relentlessly cute as the Banks children, roles that keep them on stage a lot, and they handle them well. Under Lin Holdridge’s direction, everyone else did, too. The choreography, handled by Molly Buchmann, also was quite good, especially in “Step in Time.”
There were, however, missed steps on opening night that had to set Jenny Ballard’s teeth on edge as TBR managing artistic director, having replaced Keith Dixon after his 10 years at the helm.
The changing of scenery could most charitably be described as clunky. The aerials, meant to highlight Poppins’ mystical powers, routinely left her dangling near the edge of the stage in full view of the audience; that’s preferable to zip-lining her into the wall, but still distracting. The lighting had its miscues, too. Reports are that these issues were largely fixed by Sunday’s second showing.
Which is good, because the show — and the theater’s new era — must go on. With “Mary Poppins,” it goes on with a performance worthy of its reputation.