‘Poppins’ returns, live on stage, to Civic Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre has displayed a “practically perfect” sense of timing by presenting the Disney Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” just as the sequel hits the movie theaters. Before watching the follow-up on the screen, see the story of the original Banks family and the magical nanny who changed their lives for the better, delivering serious lessons in her “spoonful of sugar” style.

Jeremy Shivers-Brimm is Bert — narrator and everyone’s friend — who was once told to learn a trade, “so I learned ‘em all” (including, famously, a chimney sweep). He nimbly embraces all the character’s likable aspects, helping it step out of the shadow of Dick Van Dyke’s film persona. Devan Mathias is our Mary (she also took the role in Civic’s previous “Poppins” production), sharply confident — both actor and character — seizing and holding our trust and affection every moment she’s on the stage.

The various supporting roles all have a touch of whimsy, from pleasantly blustery Admiral Boom (Rory Shivers-Brimm), neighbor Miss Lark (Katie Stark), the Policeman (Ben Angelo) on the street, to the efficiently-choreographed staff of the bank, making the central family feel comparatively normal and relatable. Father George Banks (J. Stuart Mill) has a good heart, but keeps it restrained by a drive for precision and order; mother Winifred (Mikayla Koharchik) has made her sacrifices as well. Son and daughter Michael (Ben Kistner) and Jane (Sydney Pinchouck) resist their parents’ desire for discipline, requesting a nanny on their terms. What surprises await when they get precisely what they asked for!

While the children meet interesting characters including Bert, the Bird Woman (Mary Margaret Montgomery), word merchant Mrs. Corry (Kendra Randle) and friendly statue Neleus (Alex Smith), it’s hardly a surprise that even Queen Victoria (Susan Smith) shows up. But if the lessons don’t sink in, an alternative nanny, the cruel Miss Andrew (Smith), could be called.

All performances are “spit-spot” polished, including the gentle antics of house servants Mrs. Brill (Ragen Sanner) and Robertson Ay (David Cunningham). Young performers Kistner and Pinchouck have a natural ease on stage that belies their age.  

Wonderful steps-in-time were arranged by director Anne Beck, providing the big singing and dancing spectacle one would expect, including a bit of flight and other wire work. For fans of the P.L. Travers books, note there are aspects of them not in the original Disney film (such as Neleus and Miss Andrew) and a little different order of events — you hardly notice the penguins are missing.

Performances are through Dec. 29 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Review: Locally-sourced ‘Toyland’

By John Lyle Belden

The Footlite Musicals production of “Babes in Toyland” is both old and fresh, as the classic songs by Victor Herbert a century ago are set in a new book by the show’s director Bob Harbin (of Bibdirex fame) and comic megatalent Claire Wilcher (who, unfortunately, isn’t in the show). Harbin notes in the program that the original script is public domain, allowing him to put his and Claire’s own spin on the play.

The first act is practically a play in itself, set mostly in Mother Gooseland. Jack and Jill (Thomas Whitcomb and Breanna Jaffe) have taken a tumble, and Bo Peep (Samantha Shelton) has lost her sheep, but the biggest drama is that Mary Contrary (Claire Cassidy) wants to marry Tom Piper (Jonathan Krouse), but wicked landlord Barnaby (Jeff Fuller) demands to wed her instead. Neither Mary’s mother (Susan Smith) nor Mother Goose herself (Miki Mathioudakis) like the deal, but what hope is there for a happy ending – especially when Tom disappears? Fortunately some Gypsies (“We are Gypsies!” is a running gag) come in to help save the day.

Barnaby suffers a setback, but is not finished. The plot takes our characters in the second act to Toyland, home of a toymaker (Dan Flahive) who has given up on his craft. Time to work up another dramatic showdown towards a happy ending.

This show is very much geared towards the children and kids-at-heart, tykes who don’t mind if the beak of Mother Goose’s Gander (voiced by Curtis Peters) gets a little out of synch or if some of the joke lines fall flat. Another giggle-worthy moment or song-and-dance spectacle from this large all-ages cast is coming right up. Kudos to Fuller for playing his “boo-hiss” villain for all it’s worth. And best scene-stealer goes to Keilyn Bryant as Little BB (as in “Boy Blue”). Harbin does a great job wrangling all of the various elements that go into this show, providing an experience that feels like a holiday tradition, yet is a good alternative to the other traditional holiday shows around town you saw last year (and the year before, and the year before…).

“Toyland,” at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy, closes on Dec. 13, so get your reservation now at 317-923-6630 or www.footlite.org.