The age-old theater adage of wishing for one more week of rehearsal couldn’t apply more to the sometimes spectacular, often bumpy performance of “Mary Poppins” presented by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society.
This popular musical, based on the classic fantasy stories by P.L. Travers and the beloved 1964 Disney movie, and adapted by British impresario Cameron Mackintosh and Julian Fellows (of “Downton Abby” fame), is an ambitious undertaking.
Director Kristopher Shaw has his hands full coordinating the acting, music, dancing and effect-driven designs of this mammoth show, the largest undertaking in the 38-year history of this treasured company.
Seven more days certainly would have cured the bobbles, blunders and hastily assembled moments that marred an otherwise marvelous opening.
Clocking in at a hefty three hours, “Mary Poppins” is an endurance test for children of all ages.
“Oohs” and “ahhs” filled the theater as Mary, played by the always superlative Micah Desonier, flies off right over our heads. (Puzzlingly, Mary flies off, but she doesn’t fly in — wasn’t she blown in by an east wind?)
Lynne Bordelon’s choreography, like so many elements of this production, alternates from the uninspired to the spectacular. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” aided by the explosion of color and invention from costume designers Vincent Scassellati and Kenneth Burrell, infectiously delights as the cast spells out the famous extra-long word. Even more glorious is “Step in Time” (choreography by Tara Brewer) showcasing Bert (Bryce Slocumb), the likeable chimney sweep who at one point literally dances upside down.
JPAS is still working out sound amplification issues. The over-amplified cast screeches whenever an actor attempts a high or loud tone while the under-amplified orchestra (conducted by Maestro Dennis G. Assaf) is left in the pit, relegated to background music instead of lifting the action and sweeping us away.
There are distracting production missteps: a stubborn tree set-piece upstaging “Jolly Holiday,” offstage bangs, erratic spotlights and ill-timed set changes.
On the other hand, “Feed the Birds” (scenic designer Kristin Blatchford’s best work and splendidly sung by Brooke Hagler) demonstrates the level of professionalism JPAS aspires to and is capable of.
The 33-member cast, led by music director Donna Clavijo, is a group of first-rate vocalists and charming stage presences.
Mary — who might have been more portrayed a bit more playfully — recognizes an unhappy family in need of healing and teaches them the value of charity. But as directed, the actors seem far more involved with the audience than they are with each other. Love cannot bloom and kindness cannot be acquired when Mary and the family never fully engage.
Perhaps the cast should take their cue from the terrific Bethany Fagan as Ms. Andrews, the evil replacement nanny, whose sheer dynamism forces the other actors to act with her instead of keeping more than one eye on the audience.
As George Banks — a banker who values money over family — Louis Dudoussat creates a commanding presence. His transition from icy stern to warm fuzzy leaps from nowhere and just doesn’t ring true.
The Banks children, Jane (a precocious Bree Hollis) and Michael (an amiable Christian Collins) have substantial roles in the show. At times a bit cloying, these young actors still prove commendable in their sizable tasks.
Chrissy Bown, as Mrs. Banks, sings beautifully. We just wish she had better songs.
The sprightly, bewitching tunes from the Disney movie by Richard and Robert Sherman, included in the play, are far superior to the bland new compositions by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
As a musical, the resplendent spirit of the film has been diminished. Nevertheless this destined-to-please JPAS production is a spectacle for the eyes, if not the heart.
Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theater Critics Association.