When it was announced that Hillbarn Theatre would produce Mary Poppins, I must admit I flinched a bit. It’s a pretty iconic entity and it traditionally requires significant budget and space to pull off a relatively complex production. Additionally, you have a film (not to mention Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) to compete with in terms of overall expectations. It’s a huge risk (for which I always support a company for taking) and one I looked forward to seeing. While the theater has succeeded in some large, spectacular shows in the past, this endeavor for me posed too many obstacles to buy into fully.
With a few exceptions, the talent in this production was up to the task. Overall, clearly very well cast. Our Mary Poppins looks, acts and sounds the part to a tee/tea! Our children, Jane and Michael Banks steal the show with their comfort in and commitment to their characters. Mrs. Banks had substance and wit and vocally satisfies. Mr. Banks wasn’t maybe I strict and rigid as I’d expect (which made his arch a tad weaker) but I enjoyed 2nd act Mr. Banks a lot. I wanted more charm and mystery in Bert, but he handled the fun and challenging choreography well and his Bank Chairman was enjoyable. Katie Nanna and Robertson provided some sweet comic timing and slapstick as did a stellar dog puppet that graced the stage multiple times. Mrs. Andrews possesses the most formidable set of pipes on the stage and the rest of the ensemble was solid all around.
Now that we’ve had our spoonful of sugar, let’s address the medicine in the room. Flight. I imagine OSHA, our litigious society and the like have quite ruined flying for audiences and theater companies on any kind of a budget. Surely though, there must have been another way to achieve Mary and Bert’s flight in a way that was less … ridiculous. It took longer to hook and unhook Bert and Mary on stage than I think they actually spent flying. The rigging was loud and visible. It wasn’t a case of pretend you didn’t see the wires, it was awkward and distracting. The hooks for the rigging disrupted the otherwise lovely costuming in many occasions and in the end the bang was more of a wimper with regard to that particular effect. If Mary and Bert had to fly (and I suppose many would say it would have been a bigger letdown had they not) I think it would have behooved the production to make different choices. Employ illusionists, magicians, engineers, imagineers, think outside that box however you have to, but I emplore the theater world to solve this problem for productions in seasons to come. Personally, I’d have much preferred to see the theater make fun of the fact that it had some flight limitations by using puppets (shadow or otherwise) and a clothesline over the approach they took. The alternative low tech solution might be cheesy, but at least they would be intentionally so. While maybe it didn’t bother the children in the audience, I just couldn’t “suspend” my belief when it came to the suspension.
Aside from flight, the biggest challenges for me with this show came down to matters of balance. The orchestra (while I fully appreciate their quality of playing) was far too loud from where I was and mics seemed to complicate matters for most cast members. Indeed, the actors seemed to struggle to hear themselves and each other over the volume in numerous places and tempos even went astray at time.
Additionally, balance (or lack thereof) impacted how sets were used in this unique theater space. While it never ceases to amaze me how entire sets can appear out of nowhere at this theater, there were many short scenes and long scene changes. The problem wasn’t in the quality of the sets (they were fun and functional), but the interruption in flow. While perhaps a novelty at first, the elaborate changes grew cumbersome and dragged on before the end of the first act.
While the spirit of the Mary Poppins story is whole-heartedly infused and the talent mostly present, I left feeling the choices (and maybe this particular show, full stop) were just too big an undertaking for this theater at this time. In a case of one step forward, two step back, it just had too many things that detracted from the things that were done well. While I was hoping for a more magical evening, even if it meant stripping down some of the technical tricks to fit the space, the result is a slightly less supercalifragalistic 3 out of 5 jewels in review tiara for what ultimately felt like a more amateur production in many ways than Hillbarn is known for. Mary Poppins plays through December 18th at the Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City.