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'Mary Poppins' rich on cozy Fireside Theatre stage

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

March 13, 2014

 

WAUKESHA - Staging “Mary Poppins” on the small stage at the Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson is a challenge. Because of Poppins’ magic powers, producers often engage in elaborate technologies to create some of her “tricks.” The dance of the chimneysweeps is also usually a big production number when presented on a larger stage.

However, because of the ideal casting, astute direction and some small but very effective creative touches, we still experience the childlike charm, beauty and mystery of this beloved show.

As is true of all good children’s literature, there is always something for everyone. Adults and children each relate to it differently, but everyone can derive some enjoyment and enlightenment from the story, which might account for its immense popularity since its memorable film version in 1964, starring the inimitable Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. 

The stage version has been touring the world since 2004. It is just closing on Broadway after a long run, since 2006.

As soon as we are introduced to Mathew Schwartz as Bert and Elizabeth DeRosa as Mary Poppins, we know we are in for a treat.  Schwartz fully captures Bert’s sunny and impish disposition. He’s perfected the dialect and the deft moves, as well. He’s also good at piquing our interest as to the nature of his and Poppins’ relationship. How have they known each other? Hmmm. He makes us wonder. They obviously respect and like each other a lot.

DeRosa  is just as perfect as her song  “Practically Perfect” declares when she arrives upon the scene as the savior nanny to a pair of children who have challenged many before her. Her mix of propriety and ingenuity, not to mention her incredible vocal ability, plus her ability to connect with children - all rescue Jane and Michael Banks from driving the Banks household to insanity. Mrs. Banks, though well-meaning, seems incapable of providing limits and discipline, and Mr. Banks is too involved in his work to offer much in the way of parental involvement.

Mary Poppins teaches through example and experiences. She challenges her charges, amuses them and forces them to think and to empathize. She introduces them to her friend, the chimneysweep Bert, to the statue Neleus and to the Bird Woman, who thinks of others before herself. She helps them to see possibilities and encourages resiliency, independence and generosity. They eventually begin to respond.

The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Banks are also quite well developed, and they, too, grow under Mary Poppins’  tutelage.  Megan Lee Miller is perfect in her role as the accommodating, but frustrated, wife. Her vocals are strong and clear and lovely.  Mr. Banks, played effectively by Victor Hernandez, is credibly crotchety, and when the song permits, his melodious tenor voice comes through. His first few numbers are a bit too low for his range. He is eventually redeemable and responsive, and we love him for it.

Mrs. Brill is nicely rendered by Rhonda Rae Busch, as is her household assistant Robertson Ay (Brian Elliott), who has a towering voice when he has a chance to display it.

The Bank children are double cast. Gracie Beardsley and Joshua MacCudden played the parts of Jane and Michael on opening day, and though both are good, MacCudden gets the nod for being totally engaged facially at all times, which takes some concentration, especially on the part of a fifth- grader. He is fabulous, period.

A delightful production, thanks to the efforts and talents of director Ed Flesch, choreographer Buddy Reeder, musical director Mary Ehlinger and costume designer Robin Buerger, among others.

“Mary Poppins” runs through April 20 at the Fireside Theatre, 1131 Janesville Ave., Fort Atkinson. For show times and tickets, call 800-477-9505 or visit www.firesidetheatre.com.