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MARY POPPINS continues the happy holiday tradition at Beck

MARY POPPINS continues the happy holiday tradition at Beck

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Like retail stores, local theatres realize that they need a big December holiday season to make enough profits to sustain themselves for rest of the year.

Looking on the holiday boards, there’s Great Lakes with their umpteenth production of “A Christmas Carol,” Cleveland Play House’s “A Christmas Story,” and Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Santaland Diaries.” PlayhouseSquare joined the jolly days with a production of “White Christmas.”  Even Dobama, the “serious theatre” added “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration” to its line up, with seemingly good pre-sales.

Beck has used ”Annie” and “Beauty And The Beast” as its holiday cash cows in previous years.  This time, it decided to start a new tradition with “Mary Poppins.”

Beck is up against several obstacles with their selection.  Because of the theatre space not having a fly gallery, Mary, as she does in the movie version, can’t fly.  (Leave it to some cute little lass, who, when the nanny with the umbrella in the movie went skyward, and our Mary was instead gliding, anchored to a moving stepladder, jumped out of her seat and wailed, “Why isn’t she flying?”)

Poppins is also a “lesson” play.  It doesn’t have a prince and princess or a little orphan girl who gets saved.  It also doesn’t have a cute dog, or a monster who turns in to a handsome prince.  It’s long on story and is short on cutesy stuff, slapstick, and unbridled action.

Fortunately, the theatre employs Martin Céspedes, the most awarded choreographer in the area.  Leave it to Céspedes to create some show stopping dances that tended to hold the attention of the kids and adults alike.

But, as good as the production is, under Scott Plate’s inventive staging, this just isn’t a kid pleasing show, especially kids who have seen the movie so many times that they can repeat the lines and expect Mary to fly and for Burt and his chimney sweeps to dance on the roof tops.

As the story goes, Jane and Michael Banks, the children of the up-tight banker George Banks, are the scourge of nannies.  The parade of child keepers, go in and out of employment, as if the house had a revolving door. No ad was run, no one knew the last nanny left, but based on a ripped-up note thrown into the air (magically taken sky-bound by creative electronic video), “The Perfect Nanny,” Poppins, shows up.

Using a child rearing philosophy of “A Spoon Full of Sugar,” the nanny tames the wild beasts and inserts a joyful ”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” attitude.  When Poppins leaves to test her long term effect, Mrs. Banks finds Mr. Banks’ old nanny, the fearsome Miss Andrew to take her place.  The results, of course, are disastrous. Poppins returns, to “Cherry Tree Lane” and  the family settles down  in happy bliss, appreciating the value of family and the need for love rather than fear. Mary Poppins leaves to the strains of “A Shooting Star.”

Along the way, such tunes as “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Jolly Holiday,” “A Man Has Dreams,” “Feed the Birds,” “Playing the Game,” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” are sung, and Céspedes pulls off his choreographic magic with rousing numbers such as “Step in Time.”

Scott Plate does a “Practically Perfect” job of directing.

The cast is universally strong.  As Jane and Michael, Anna Barrett and Joseph Daso have been well-versed in the ways of theatre and the to be natural and not act their roles.  Accent perfect, the duo are totally believable.  Good job!

Matthew Ryan Thompson succeeds in the battle to create his own Bert and not imitate Dick VanDyke.  He sings well, dances with gusto and has a nice touch with humor.  Rebecca Pitcher as “The Perfect Nanny,” also avoids the film’s stereotype set by Julie Andrews.  She reverts to the character as written in the P. L. Travers’ book series, stern but loving, rather than syrupy sweet.

Katherine DeBoer is properly motherly and displays a well-trained singing voice.   Curt Arnold is excellent as the rigid George Banks.  Lissy Gulick is adorable as Mrs. Brill, the put-upon house keeper.  Aimee Collier plays the nasty Miss Andrew with a negative relish and a big voice!  Peggy Gibbons delivers a lovely rendition of “Feed the Birds.”

The dancing corps is excellent, pulling off the choreography with ease and effectiveness.  The orchestra, under the direction of Larry Goodpaster, plays well and supports rather than drowning out the singers.  Sound designer Carlton Guc did the masterful job of getting the Beck sound system to operate without a single sound squeal!

Jeff Herrmann, cursed with a small playing area and no back or side stage space, must be a master of jigsaw puzzles, as set pieces whiz on and off stage with comparative ease.  Using many, many white umbrellas hanging from the batons, as a background for Mike Tutaj’s masterfully designed videos, was a stroke of genius.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Mary Poppins, based on the stories of P. L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film, is generally delightful, though not as charismatic as required for the attention of young children.  It will delight most theatre-goers as Mary Poppins flylessly cavorts into their hearts and feeds them “A Spoon Full of Sugar.”

“Mary Poppins” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through January 4, 2015.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to