By ROBERT DIGITALE
The folks at Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts likely knew they had another hit with “Mary Poppins” when the audience started applauding in the middle of a dance number.
This happened not once but twice at the musical’s Friday premiere as the packed house spontaneously expressed its delight: Once for the cast’s high-energy steps and once for the clever movement of fantastical characters covering the stage.
Such spectacles – plus, the chance to see a certain umbrella-toting nanny flying above it all – captivated the crowd but remained merely the icing on the cake, or the spoonful of sugar, for the feast that was served up to expectant theatergoers. Once more SRJC has shown it can combine all the right ingredients for a great night of musical theater.
The proper mix certainly included the leading lady, Alanna Weatherby. Suffice to say she is practically perfect as Mary Poppins. At the opening she displayed an amazing voice and a sure comedic timing, a helpful gift when playing a character who keeps almost everyone else perpetually off balance.
Weatherby on Friday won a rousing ovation from the audience, as did Noah Sternhill as Bert. He naturally embodied the easygoing jack-of-all-trades and co-conspirator for the adventures of Mary and the Banks children. And the young man certainly held his own in the singing and dancing department.
The musical, by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, is based upon both the 1964 film with Julie Andrews and the stories by P.L. Travers. It remains a tale of two unruly children, Jane and Michael Banks, and their preoccupied parents. Enter Mary Poppins, and the family is sure to never be the same.
Those who grew up solely on the movie will be regularly readjusting as both the recognizable and the strange appear. Some of the film’s songs remain (“Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Feed the Birds,” and that “Supercali…” mouthful). But some numbers appear at different points in the tale, with different verses, and a number of new songs have been added. Moreover, just when the plot seems familiar, along comes an unexpected twist. My advice: Accept that you are watching a new story and let it surprise you.
Under the direction of Laura Downing-Lee, the supporting cast adds plenty of magic. Stirring were the voices of Katie Wigglesworth as Winifred Banks, Stacy Rutz as the Bird Woman and Victoria Hill as the “Holy Terror,” aka Miss Andrew. Alysah Hruby and Freyja Kremer shone in their roles Friday as Jane and Michael Banks (they alternate the parts with Madigan Love and Annelise Ethington respectively.) And Heston Scott as George Banks handled well the challenges of portraying a demanding, distant father whose world is about to turn upside down.
The three-dozen cast members repeatedly filled the stage as the children’s adventures with Mary and Bert inevitably led to song and dance. The members added a host of bright embellishments by their acting, singing and dancing. A special treat was the dance solo by Joseph Favolora as Neleus.
Scenic designer Peter Crompton’s set and backdrops once more were a delight to the eye. At times we seemed to be looking inside a furnished dollhouse that could open up to reveal a parlor, a nursery or a kitchen. Pull those pieces back and the stage effortlessly transforms into a street, a park, a bank or the rooftops of London.
And the orchestra, under the direction of Janis Dunson Wilson, provided a measured energy to underpin the musical extravaganza.
In short, it’s a lot of fun.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the ongoing theatrics at Burbank Auditorium. Each fall for the last four years, the college has produced a quality musical, including “My Fair Lady,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Les Misérables” and last year’s knockout “Phantom of the Opera.”
Now it can add “Mary Poppins” to that list.
The good news is there are still nine performances remaining between this Friday after Thanksgiving and Dec. 6. That includes four matinees and five evening shows. For tickets, click here.