Susi Damilano Delivers a Poppin’ Nanny for the Ages
by Rachel Norby and Tyler Jeffreys
P.L. Travers’ quirky, beloved English governess, Mary Poppins (commanding El Beh) takes a sharp, new turn in director Susi Damilano’s staging. When Mary sings “The whole bloomin’ Empire,” she reminds us that the British Empire was ruling the world in 1900.
Mary’s natural alliance with Bert the Chimney Sweeper (swaggy Wiley Naman Strasser) defines a new “Poppins.” Unlike the Disney movie, this “Mary Poppins” hones in on the immoral gap between England’s poor and the middle class. Damilano introduces a punk rock, edgy tone into her adventurous “Mary Poppins.”
In 1900s London, spoiled kids Jane and Michael Banks (impressive Ruth Keith and David Rukin) wreak havoc on their stuffy smug British parents on Cherry Tree Lane. The young actors demonstrate delightful comic timing, when Michael sneers at Bert (Strasser) because he’s a grimy chimney sweep. Later, the show responds with Bert’s showing the kids how to fly a kite.
Their stern father, George Banks (precise Ryan Drummond), dominates their overwhelmed mother, Winifred (emotional Abby Haug). These self-obsessed Britishers ignore their wild children, but Mom senses their parenting is off track.
When radical Mary (Beh) floats down on her black umbrella, she turns the British Banks inside out. Beh’s soft relaxed voice lulls us all into understanding the gap between classes. Although she strains for the high notes, she always looks the London snobs in the eyes.
Mary challenges the middle class with classic songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” refusing to coddle the little Banks. Mary helps them reach out to the world beyond Cherry Lane.
Nina Ball’s magnificent set, a life-size pop-up book, allows cast members to turn its immense pages, revealing a rose-filled park or a Victorian parlor. London’s brick chimneys spout dark smoke into the backdrop of a brilliant starry night. Bravo to Ball’s great design talents!
At her Talk Shop, where locals shop for “conversations,” Mrs. Corry (delightful Sophia LaPaglia) charms us with her swirling cotton candy pink hair. Choreographer Kimberly Richards transfixes us with the “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious” song and dance, adding big hip hop arm swings for each syllable.
Beautiful Katrina Lauren McGraw helps the Banks kids get their heads out of the sand with her stunning songs. As the homeless Bird Woman, her peaceful presence and soothing R&B voice pierce our hearts. McGraw encourages Jane and Michael to see her humanity. And as Miss Andrew, McGraw terrorizes the stuffy Banks with her glorious, operatic “Brimstone and Treacle,” an absolute joy.
Mary Poppins shows the Banks that the world is bigger than just them. The ultimate nanny opens the door to sharing, humanity, and diversity–one family at a time. Director Susi Damilano has made an amazing “Mary” for Millennials–and for the rest of us, too!
“Mary Poppins”–a musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film, original music & lyrics by Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman, book by Julian Fellowes, new songs by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe, co-created by Cameron Mackintosh, directed by Susi Damilano, scenic design by Nina Ball, at San Francisco Playhouse, through Saturday, January 12, 2019. Info: sfplayhouse.org
Cast: Wiley Naman Strasser, Ryan Drummond, Abby Haug, Ruth Keith, David Rukin, Sophia LaPaglia, Rudy Guerrero, Kathryn Han, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Marie Shell, Rod Voltaire Edora, El Beh, Dominic Dagdagan, Katrina Lauren McGraw, Gina Velez, and Catrina Manahan.
Banner photo: Wiley Naman Strasser, El Beh, and Ensemble