By Bill Beard
Stagecoach Players has long been considered one of the better community theatres in the Illinois-Wisconsin stateline area. From a typical “little theatre” beginning in 1947 by a group of friends (in a proverbial hay loft of a generous farmer’s barn, and using an actual vintage stage coach as a box office), the Stagecoachers have grown to a schedule of several productions every year (currently eight major shows annually), including a wide variety of styles and genres: musicals, comedy, drama, etc.
I saw their production of Spamalot last year; it was flawlessly funny. Their 2004 production of Les Miserables was one of the finest young cast shows I had ever seen; and incidentally, the current Mary Poppins is the work of that same amazing directorial team, Music Director Judy O’Connor and Stage Director Jan Kuntz. They are just two of the many faithful leaders of this talented group.
Mary Poppins the film was released in 1964 and has been one of the most popular Disney movies of all time. The musical version, based on the Disney film (and on the original books of P. L. Travers), opened in London in 2004, in New York in 2006, and delighted Broadway audiences for over 2,500 performances, receiving nominations for nine Olivier and seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
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 Stagecoach… because you will! Even though their physical space is limited, especially by the fact that their stage ceiling is only 11 feet high, they have created some wonderful magical tricks throughout the show which 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?)
A wide range of talent is needed to pull off a stage version of Mary Poppins. Not only are there the indelible images of Julie Andrews as the mystical, magical Mary and Dick Van Dyke as her cohort-in-charm Bert (the lovable and charming chimney-sweep), but there are also several other special supporting roles and cameo characters which have become almost impossible to recreate. Don’t expect Julie and Dick here, but luckily, Stagecoach Players has an extensive stable of capable actor-singer-dancers who do a fine job of supplying their own impressions of these challenging characters.
This is a wonderful show for kids, both in the audience and on stage. As is often the case with large community theatres, there is a tendency to “put as many kids in the cast as possible”! Director Kuntz gave in to that tradition, but has done a masterful job of “handling” the bunch. Her casting choice for the two Banks children, Molly Babczak as Jane and Aidan McGarry as Michael, was fine; and though they seemed somewhat ill at ease in Act I, they became more natural and believable in the second act, when they both proved comfortable and quite charming.
The show requires several good female voices, and this cast has them. To set the standard of course, both Mary Poppins and Mrs. Banks need strong, trained voices. Rose McGregor, imported from Rockford’s Starlight Theatre, has a lovely voice and exhibits the strength and control to handle the many facets of Mary’s character with comfort and ease; and Courtney Jo Newby is solid as Mother Banks, both in character and in the subtle handling of her very pleasant voice. Also of note is the perfectly charming and soothing delivery of “Feed the Birds…Tuppence a bag” by Hannah Wood, as the endearing Bird Woman.
Special kudos to the vivacious scene-stealer, Mary Grace Martens, as the dynamic clownish Mrs. Corry, and her exhilarating handling of the Act I high point, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. What great crazy fun (and amazing wig)!
When I first saw the original Mary Poppins, I fell in love with the marvelous comic actress, Ruth Gottschall. She played the role of Miss Andrew, the old nanny who comes in to replace Mary Poppins and “shape things up”! Miss Andrew mesmerizes the family. Her witch-like approach is epitomized by her administering of medicine to young Jane and Michael. Whereas earlier Mary Poppins had convinced them that “A Spoonful of Sugar helps the Medicine go down”, Miss Andrew brandishes a bottle of “Brimstone and Treacle”. Ruth Gottschall was magnificent, a real wicked witch of the west.
But Stagecoach has one of their own. Here the role is played by the SCOTY-Award winning actress, Terri Crane Goodman. Ms. Goodman is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a professionally skilled and accomplished actress. She creates the consummate character of Miss Andrew. Her presence on stage commands….and deserves….attention. Her acting is impeccable and her singing is flawless. Her solo was great and her “Brimstone and Treacle” duet with Mrs. Banks a show-stopper.
This is really a show for the distaff side of casting; lots of good stuff for the gals, not so many chances for the guys. But Stagecoach has plenty of good men. In this case, the fantastic role of Bert, the Chimney-sweep, which made Dick Van Dyke even more famous, is perfectly cast with the very capable Cameron Harms. His subtle charm and endearing personality makes his Bert irresistibly lovable.
John McNally as George Banks, the stiff and stern father of the house, did not fare quite so well. He was wonderful in the second act, as the broken remorseful penitent, seeing what might lay ahead. But his first act character was allowed to go too far ‘over the top’ with a stern, severe, almost harsh stiffness. This was perhaps a director’s choice; but the transition from first act caricature to warm and loving ‘daddy’ just didn’t work. Other notable male roles included Jeff Heider as Robertson, Jeff Little as Von Hussler and Matt Larsen’s immediately likeable Cop.
Two other things I absolutely must mention: (1.) Costumes! Not only were there thousands, they were amazingly well chosen, and unbelievably imaginative and creative. Congratulations! And (2.) Orchestra! I would never have believed that it was live and backstage until I saw them carrying their instruments out into the lobby after the show. Excellent!
Altogether, this is a very strong show, a “feel good” show. Oh, yeah…there were limitations, of course. But one must expect flaws when such a huge production is attempted by a non-professional, though extremely enthusiastic group of theatre lovers. This is one of most beautiful things about the amateur arts in America. As Mary Poppins sings to the children: “Anything can happen, if you let it!”
Now the bad news. Although this Stagecoach production of Mary Poppins plays through March 20, unfortunately all 11 performances are already sold out. However….the producers have told me that they fairly often have cancellations; so, if you’d like to check, you are welcome to phone 815-758-1940 at any time, or visit stagecoachers.com.
Otherwise, watch for notices of their next musical, My Fair Lady, this June.