By Bill Beard
Is spring really here? Or at least on its way? Well, now one of the cheeriest indications of brighter days ahead can be currently enjoyed right up I-90 in Fort Atkinson, Wis., where the ever-popular Fireside Dinner Theatre is playing the much-loved musical favorite, Mary Poppins … the Broadway musical, not the movie.
Excellent timing, too; with this past year’s hit film, Saving Mr. Banks, having brought P. L. Travers’ wonderful original stories of the mystical governess into prominence again. Finding out how Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) convinced and coerced the brilliant, but stubborn, novelist (played by the amazing Emma Thompson) to allow Mary Poppins to be filmed at all makes one appreciate even more the genius Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke brought to the unforgettable characters of Mary Poppins and her chimney-sweep buddy, Bert, in the 1964 movie.
One should not expect Julie and Dick in this production; but let me assure you that The Fireside has come extremely close. Elizabeth DeRosa (Mary) comes from the New York cast of Poppins, where she performed the role many times, and brings a beautiful voice and sparkling spirit to the magical nanny of the Banks family household. From her perfect umbrella-landing entrance through all of her mysterious tricky maneuvers in handling the precocious Banks children, she is perfectly in control.
Matching Ms. DeRosa in spirit and appeal is the charismatic Fireside favorite, Mathew Schwartz, as charming and lovable a chimney-sweep as one could ask for. Mr. Schwartz seems to go from show to show, creating one excellent role after another with ease and naturalness, yet with distinction and individuality. (I still remember his Dauntless with much fondness.) He’s done it again.
Equally as clever and on target are the children, Joshua MacCudden as Michael and Gracie Beardsley as Jane. Both actors appear to be very young, 8 or 9 years at the most; but they are absolutely amazing — a wonderfully pouty, spoiled Jane, and a mischievous, bright-eyed Michael. They steal the show much of the time. I couldn’t take my eyes off MacCudden; he was so consistently in character.
The Ensemble is, as usual, energetic and precise (extra little kudo to Mary-Elizabeth Milton’s wonderful Mrs. Corry). Megan Lee Miller is a nicely balanced, appropriately elegant Mrs. Banks; Victor Hernandez as Mr. Banks seemed a bit ill-at-ease at times, but the role, as written, is somewhat random and ill-defined. A few of the other characters pushed a bit too much toward caricature, but the overall effect of the Ensemble work was excellent, the dancing strong and demanding. In fact, a couple of the big production numbers could easily have done with some cutting of repeats.
I first saw this musical in London in spring of 2005. I saw it in the evening, after seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that afternoon (which was a real dud!). But Mary Poppins was a complete joy! The production was technically a masterpiece; and when Mary made her final exit at the end of the show, they had rigged the theater so she actually “flew” from the roof of the Bates’ house on stage, her umbrella extended above her, up and out over the orchestra pit, and then high above the audience all the way to the rear of the top balcony. The entire audience cheered; standing ovation.
But wait! Don’t worry that you won’t get technical wizardry at The Fireside … because you will! They have some wonderful magical tricks throughout the show that will keep you surprised and guessing. This is a show with great music, wonderful comedy and a fun story. (Note of interest: The script of Mary Poppins was written by the man who has currently become famous as the creator of the popular Downton Abbey: Julian Fellowes. Who knew?)
This is The Fireside Theatre’s 50th year, and they have a marvelous lineup of shows ahead: Fiddler on the Roof and Les Miserables among them. Their food is still topnotch. They have a national reputation. If you haven’t yet made a habit of seeing these shows, start now! You will be treated like royalty.
Mary Poppins plays through April 20. Phone for information: 1-800-477-9505.
From the March 19-25, 2014, issue