There is a magic to Poppins. Something deep and untouchable, a whirlwind excitement, a shared bewilderment at the world’s favorite nanny. It’s what we remember from the first time we saw the film, it’s what we think of everytime we see an umbrella in the wind. And it’s what we’re chasing every time we bring her into the world, in a children’s book or a Disney movie or a musical for the stage. This weekend, that stage musical comes to Sioux Falls at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre. And it is definitely chasing magic.
The musical, which first opened in 2004, shares many elements with the Disney film. Favorite tunes are all there, plus delightful originals written for the stage. Plotlines are removed and added, characters expand and complicate. Director Callie Hisek has not only brought a new rendition of that musical, with nuance and side stories and moments I’d never seen before; she has crafted a wonderful atmosphere in her cast, across the board, where every bank teller and park walker and kite flier is invested in the scene and ready to react to the fantastic moments that happen onstage.
And happen they do. We are led from scene to scene by narrator and everyman Bert, played by Tim Huggenberger. From the first moment Huggenberger is all charm, possessing an easygoing familiarity with the audience that sucks us in, tells us we’re already friends and, no worries, we’re along for the ride. He introduces us to Michael and Jane Banks (Keegan Sigl, Kalli Barnhart), a talented young pair who play the troublesome children so well that I can’t blame their nannies for leaving.
Colette Gross plays their beleaguered mother Winifred with humanity, total sincerity, and a heartbreaking exhaustion. Similarly, Chris Andrews gives us a George Banks I hadn’t expected: he is soft, even vulnerable at early moments. And while at first I wished for what I’ve seen in the past – a resounding voice, a hard stare at anything out of place – Andrews grew on me. His story is dynamic and his words of disregard for his children still hurt, perhaps even more, without the customary edge to his voice.
Thrown into the mania are the house staff, played by Ruth Sturm and Bob Wendland. Throughout the show we return to their antics, and with these two in charge, I can see why. Strum and Wendland are always good for a laugh, the sincere kind, a hilarity driven by great actors who have committed fully to the joke.
The story moves at a good clip, flying to and from strange worlds with Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane as the nexus. The sets built by Steve Hirsch and team are inventive, using the full space of the Orpheum theatre to great effect. Likewise, Kat Cover’s costumes pull us straight back to Edwardian London, with several brilliant flourishes on the more fantastical characters to heighten the magic for all. The choreography, by Huggenberger, ties the music together with simple steps, layered one over another for cohesive numbers, bounding and laughing rides across stage, song after song.
At their best moments the scene changes, helmed by stage manager Katie Buchholz, are like clockwork. Elements move in all directions at once to land suddenly, perfectly, in position. There were several hiccups, moments where set pieces stalled or sound cues delayed, but each time things picked right back up and flew along again, with a confidence that pulled you right into the next moment.
Into all of this flies the titular nanny herself, portrayed by Martha Stai. And make no mistake: Stai is Mary Poppins. Her presence onstage is captivating, enchanting. Her gaze is piercing, though from time to time you find yourself convinced there’s a twinkle hidden somewhere behind it, a laughter that spills forth at just the right moments. The play ordains that Mary Poppins come down from the sky and fix everything. Stai makes me believe this is possible. She commands every scene she is meant to command, and she slips into the background when it’s time for her magic to take center stage.
And I’d like to finish by talking about the magic.
Some things are required. Mary Poppins flies down from the sky. She pulls a coat rack out of a carpetbag. She makes the medicine taste like rum punch. These are contractual obligations, things that every designer, every crew has to work around, tinker with, make work. And SECT has done a wonderful job with the tricks. But the tricks are not what we’ve come to see.
My favorite scene of the night was the scene that gives birth to The S Word: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Led by the energetic and enchanting Debbi Jones as Mrs. Corry, the cast come together for a truly fantastic number, full of energy and polish and a song-and-dance routine that makes you want to leap out of your seat and join them. There are no trick set pieces, no hidden wires. But it is a powerful, joyous event, enough to make you believe – just for a moment – that Mary Poppins could be real.
And all the tricks in the world can’t compare to that, the real magic of theatre: the elusive laugh that bursts from one character, ripples across the cast and overflows, without judgment or ego or pause of any kind, into an audience that is truly along for the ride.
It is enough to chase magic. It is enough to believe it possible. But in these moments, they catch it.
Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins runs May 6th to May 22nd at the Orpheum Theatre. See SiouxFallsTheatre.com for ticketing information and showtimes.