Theater is all about transformation, and transformation is never easy. But transforming one of the best-loved movies of all time into a stage musical? That’s a huge challenge, because the expectations are always so remarkably high. So it takes guts, creativity, and a whole lot of daring-do, all of which are on vivid display in the splendid new production of “Mary Poppins,” presented by Spreckels Theater Company in Rohnert Park.
Adapted, in part, from the Walt Disney film with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, “Mary Poppins,” the play, is a fascinating fusion of the expected and the unexpected. Writer Julian Fellowes, the guy behind Downton Abbey, pulls off the trick by rewriting the lighthearted movie’s plot to make it a bit more faithful to the darker, scarier books by P.L. Travers, while still retaining most of the movie’s songs and several of its best moments.
The magic carpet bag? It’s there, as is the smarty-pants tape measure that tells more about you than just your height. Gone, though, are the dancing penguins and the tea party on the ceiling.
In their place are dancing statues and a trip to a magical shop where letters and words can be purchased like candy.
The big question is, does Mary Poppins still fly?
Yes she does, spectacularly.
And as played by the delightful Heather Buck, she shows a lot more strength, edge and power than in the film, sweet when she needs to be, but tough too, and even a little bit dangerous.
The unruly siblings Jane and Michael Banks are causing friction between their parents, the skittish but blustery Mr. Banks, played by Garet Waterhouse, and the strong-willed Mrs. Banks, played wonderfully by Sandy Riccardi. Right on cue, the mysterious Mary Poppins arrives with her bag of tricks and a plan to put things right with the amiable assistance of her best friend Bert, played with energy and charm by Dominic Williams. There’s a dark-humored subplot involving the terrifying Miss Andrews – a stellar Mary Gannon Graham – who shows up to battle Mary Poppins for the family’s future – and perhaps a bit of its soul.
Under the direction of Gene Abravaya, who handles the shifts in tone from light to dark and back with grace and ease, the entire show is packed with wonder and rich with emotion.
Give this man the Facing-a-Challenge and exceeding-all-expectations award. The effects are cleverly done, the dancing and music are eye-popping and ear pleasing, and the bittersweet ending is effectively lovely. True to form, when Mary Poppins shows up, she brings out the best in everyone she meets.
Meanwhile, at 6th Street Playhouse, the Lemons-into-Lemonade Award of the month goes to director Craig Miller, who has cleverly surmounted a number of imposing challenges in creating a highly entertaining new production of the 1992 musical “Crazy for You.” The Tony-winning show by Ken Ludwig is built from old standard songs by George and Ira Gershwin – “I’ve got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Slap that Bass” – inventing a plot about a dusty western town invaded by show-people from New York.
It works, due to strong lead performances and some clever invention from Miller, whose written a new opening scene that sets things up and solves an array of issues, including the fact that Miller’s cast has far more women than men. His solution to the problem is not just clever. It makes the show funnier.
With spectacular choreography by lead actor Joseph Favalora, and a winning performance by Abbey Lee as a love-struck cowgirl, “Crazy for You” is not exactly deep theater, but its funny, sweet, and driven by an infectious love of the theater.
If you like musicals, especially if you love Gershwin, you should check it out.
“Crazy for You” runs Thursday–Sunday through March 15 at 6th Street Playhouse. www.6thstreetplayhouse.com.
“Mary Poppins” runs Friday–Sunday, through May 23 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. www.spreckelsonline.com
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.