By Daniel Skora
The Encore Musical Theatre Company of Dexter has gotten so good at putting on musicals that are tailor made for larger venues that you can’t help but marvel at their success. Now, with their current production of “Mary Poppins”, they have another hit on their hands. So what’s the secret to their success? The answer is that The Encore gives maximum attention to each and every discipline involved in the production of a musical.
Encore’s productions of “My Fair Lady”, “Into the Woods”, and “South Pacific” were extremely popular with audiences and “Mary Poppins” is an excellent choice for December if you don’t want to put on a Christmas show. It’s got a grumpy, disengaged father who finds redemption by story’s end, two disruptive children who do much the same, lots of places where having an imagination is mandatory, and two lead characters who never fail to project good will and positive thinking.
It’s got great songs that come from the solid parentage of Disney Studios and the original Mary Poppins movie. Many of the show’s songs (most written by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman) have become so familiar that children whose parents weren’t even born in 1964 when the movie came out know the lyrics to the best ones by heart. Songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, and “Feed the Birds” have found a permanent place in the American Songbook. And then there’s that song with the one-word 34-letter title, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. The song, as done in Encore’s production, is, as they say, by itself worth the price of admission. Featuring Mary (Olivia Hernandez), Bert (Sebastian Gerstner), and Mrs. Corry (Kasey Donnelly), as well as many of the Ensemble cast, the number is an imaginative mix of dance, hand jiving, and YMCA hand movements sure to bring smiles and joy.
But what good are great songs without equally great voices to deliver them and here The Encore is flush with talent. Olivia Hernandez as Mary Poppins not only has a wonderful voice and can really turn a song, but her acting talents are just as special. In fact, all the ladies in the production are superb: Ally Kaufmann as Winifred Banks; Amy Dolan-Malaney as Ms. Andrews/Bird Woman; Paige Martin as Neleus; Kasey Donnelly as Mrs. Corry; Wendy Katz Hiller as Mrs. Brill; Kylie Scarpace as Jane’s favorite doll Valentine, Bryana Hall as Miss Lark, Luciana Piazza as Katie Nana, Elizabeth Colson as Annie/Ensemble, and Gayle E. Martin and Jenn Bachman in the Ensemble.
Sebastian Gerstner has a nice go of it as Bert, the happy-go-lucky jack-of-all-trades who’s equally at home drawing chalk pictures on sidewalks or sweeping out the chimneys of London buildings. Gerstner does a nice cockney accent and gives his tap-dancing shoes a workout when he leads the ensemble through a production number done to the tune of “Step in Time”.
Other males in the cast include Daniel A. Helmer as George Banks, Dale Dobson as Admiral Boom and Bank Chairman, Kevin Morgan as Constable/Ensemble, and Nick Casella as John Northbrook/Ensemble. The roles of the two Banks children alternate between three young actors. Jane is played by Dana Steiner, Eva Reed, or Olivia Goosman, Michael by Conner Casey, John Reed, or Emmanuel Morgan.
If any single person deserves the lion’s share of kudos for this ambitious production, it’s director Thalia V. Schramm. From casting to creative to all those unseen little things that you don’t really notice because they’ve all been done right, Ms. Schramm has done a superb job and should be extremely pleased with the results.
The set, designed by Kristin Gribben, looks like it’s freshly emerged from the pages of a pop-up book, with silhouettes of London rooftops filling the background. Movable set pieces create a variety of multi-use steps and platforms, and there are separate areas for the children’s upstairs bedroom and the Banks’ living room. Scene changes and the moving of the set pieces are accomplished quickly and effortlessly, a show in itself done entirely in shadow.
Choreography is by Rachel Constantino and costumes are by Sharon Larkey Urick. Lighting is by Tyler Chinn and sound engineer is Chris Goosman. What would Mary Poppins, or all those other Londoners for that matter, be without their umbrellas, and for keeping track of them and all the other neat props in the show, we’ve Properties Master Anne Donevan to thank. Unfortunately, no flight patterns need to be filed for this Mary Poppins as she does all her maneuvering aided by lighting effects and quick fades.Tyler Driscoll plays keyboards and conducts the other members of the six piece band.
If you’ve only seen musicals at a big box theatre from row “H’ or beyond, and wondered during the show what the faces of the actors actually looked like, go and experience The Encore and their wonderfully entertaining production of “Mary Poppins”. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to feeling like you’re a part of such a large-scale performance.
“Mary Poppins” is a family show… for kids of every age, as the saying goes. The musical is based on the stories of P.L. Travers as well as the Walt Disney film. Encore’s production runs through December 23rd. Tickets are available by calling 1.734.268.6200 or going online at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets. Be advised that opening weekend was a sellout and tickets may be hard to come by for the remaining run of the show. Encore Musical Theatre is located at 3126 Broad Street in the historic village of Dexter. Take I-94 west and exit at Baker Street.