REVIEW: Chasing Magic: Mary Poppins at Sioux Falls Community Theatre

“It is enough to chase magic. It is enough to believe it possible. But in these moments, they catch it.”

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By Jonathan Fondell – Follow @TheFallsBlog on Twitter

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.

REVIEW: “Theatrical Genesis” at Augustana – 24 hrs to tell a story

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By Not The Real George Elliot

Augie Theatre’s first ever 24-hour plays hit the stage on Saturday night, February 27th, at the culmination of the Claire Donaldson New Play Festival. In the spirit of the weekend, Saturday’s show – titled Theatrical Genesis – showcased original works from current Augie students. The catch? The works were all less than a day old.

The idea of a 24-hour play is pretty straightforward: you start with nothing, you get twenty four hours, good luck. Students were divided into teams, each team was given a few prompts (“Prop: deviled eggs” or “Character: a horrible poet”), then each team was given until 7:30pm Saturday to write, rehearse, produce, and perform an original play. The end result, the playbill promises, is “a process that will have you awestruck, laughing, and crying.” I never happened to cry, but the night definitely delivered on the first two.

The concept, especially as Augie presents it, lends itself to comedy. The required props and characters (“Prop: two ears of comically large corn”), as well as the required lines of dialogue added in around the 12-hour mark, all seemed to skew toward laughs. Each of the four plays employed puns, physical comedy, wacky character traits, and tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience. The process was clearly a lot of stress and a lot of fun, and that fun carried over for the audience. All four shows possessed the seat-of-your-pants quality of a good night of improv comedy, and the characters’ frequent self-deprecation worked well for an audience of mainly Augustana community members. Everyone likes to see their friend act the fool.

The more effective shows of the night, however, were the ones who reached beyond the easy punchlines. You can only push the same pun so far, and like a good night of improv comedy, the jokes have to stay fresh. Even knowing the twenty-four hour time limit, I sometimes found myself wishing for more engaging plots, snappier dialogue, a reason to care about the people telling the jokes. Some cast dynamics were off, with actors talking over each other, not connecting at critical moments, or enduring long pauses that stretched out the silence between the laughs.

Some of this can be attributed to limited rehearsals, but sometimes it felt that each actor had a different idea of where the scene was going. There was plenty of great acting onstage, and everyone had a great sense of physicality and comedic timing, but when they were each doing their own thing I sometimes lost the heart of the scene. As a result, only some of the moments in the evening felt fully cohesive, but the ones that did – scenes that owned the silence, or embraced the reckless nature of the format, or committed fully to a wild idea – were some of the most rewarding of the night.

An excellent example is the final show of the night, The Completely Unnecessary Trial of the Piñata, in which the titular piñata (that team’s provided prop, voiced by Erik Friestad) begins his narration as the pole comes smashing into his side. This moment was clear, defined, and packed a surprise factor with a level of polish that brought down the house. We then relived the sentient piñata’s life, all ten hours of it, witnessing plenty of cornball jokes, candy puns, and the ever-useful ax-crazy boss. These elements were present in all the other shows as well, but here they followed a main character who was likable, engaging, even sympathetic. His friendship with a factory worker (Derek Somnis) is more than simple plot designation: the two share an honest moment in a silent warehouse, in the only scene of the night that made me go “aww.”

These moments in Piñata shone, not because the team had better jokes or more insane character archetypes. The moments shone because they were part of a unified story, a thing that I actively cared about, and the team’s commitment reminds us that, even if we only have a day to tell it, we still need to care earnestly about the story we tell.

I hope, fervently so, that Augie continues Theatrical Genesis in the years to come. The night was a riot, well worth attending, not only for the impromptu performances but for the chance to simply witness the birth of original ideas onstage. The Augustana Theatre community possesses an astonishing commitment to theatre in all of its weird little forms, not just traditional cut-and-dry mainstage shows. The students’ willingness to sacrifice a weekend, endure a little sleep deprivation, and do something crazy speaks to a company with a hell of a lot of passion.

I respect that passion. I enjoyed the shows. And I’m excited to see what’s next.