Phoenix Theatre’s newly opened production of the Broadway musical Mary Poppins was particularly jolly when the four youth cast in the show, two Janes and two Michaels, provided accompanying commentary. Examiner caught up with the alternating Banks siblings yesterday for a chat at the theatre. Their observations helped illuminate just why, exactly, the smiles were so broad and lasting on post-Poppins-patrons leaving the theatre.
Asher Angel, having just concluded his Mesa Encore Theatre run as the title character in Oliver, and Isaac Speyer, a third grader especially admired on the Phoenix Theatre stage for his recent glowing participation in the company’s summer acting camp comprised team Michael. Cast as Michael‘s big sister Jane, played on alternating nights, were Katie Brown and Morgan Goldberg, both ‘tweens’ with impressive resumes that include credits with top notch Valley producers like Southwest Shakespeare and Arizona Broadway Theatre.
“It’s like Michael told us,” said Brown referring to Phoenix Theatre Artistic Producing Director Michael Barnard (as opposed to her character’s brother), “Kids who see this show, if we’ve done our job right, should go home believing a Mary Poppins might visit their house next.”
Director Michael Barnard followed an extremely effective concept to make Phoenix Theatre’s telling of “the ordinary seem extraordinary. This show,” he said, “is all about the power of imagination and allowing yourself to see through the eyes of a child.”
“It’s pretty amazing to be on stage and actually feel the jaws drop in the audience [right along with Jane‘s and Michael‘s] the first time Mary flies in,” said Goldberg, agreeing with Brown.
The well loved musical, on this stage, rhythmically rose and fell on that important distinction: the story unfolds not for the children’s eyes, but through them. It’s a black and white world turned technicolor through the fierce and true imagination, the shrewd attention to detail, and the sometimes distorted interpretive powers that children harness best. THAT, beyond the excitement of flying nannies, statues coming to life, and kitchen or nursery spells, is the wondrous magic of this particular Mary Poppins production.
Angel’s protective and brotherly attitude toward Speyer during the interview demonstrated the effect well. “One rehearsal night me and Katie were helping Isaac, but Isaac was torn between working on a school project and the show choreography. I was like, ‘Isaac, buddy, help me out here,” Angel recalled with a fond, pleading smirk.
The equal parts exasperation and affection that flowed effortlessly out of Angel’s anecdote is the kind of honesty adults often lose as they mature. Through their child-actor eyes, both the interview and performance were richer.
With childlike maturity, Speyer explained. “You know, Michael‘s dad, our dad,” he gestured to the three kids on the couch next to him, “had a bad childhood. It’s like they took his childhood away. I think about it, like, when I see a mom yelling at her kid on the soccer field, and shouting mean stuff at the kid’s coach.”
“It’s so cool, because in the show, he [Mr Banks] finally gets to find the child in himself, instead of always acting like a ‘proper grown-up.” said Angel continuing Speyer’s explanation.
Placing the century-old, orginal P.L Travers plot squarely in 2014, Goldberg, the oldest of the four young actors chimed in. “It’s upsetting. Like, I have friends whose parents are divorcing? And it’s really hard. I mean, as a kid, you’re going to love them both either way.”
“And it can make you sad and even kind of angry,” said Brown whose unchecked emotions on stage burned with natural fiery response to Jane‘s miserably strict and closed-off father during the Poppins performance. “They’re living in the same house and not connecting. They can’t find each other; they can’t reach the love.”
Sage beyond her years, Brown, a sixth-grader feeling thankful and secure in her own family, concluded, “It’s really about how we’re all raised. The Mary Poppins number ‘Precision and Order’ shows it. I mean, I see that the way my parents treat me is directly tied to how my grandparents behave toward my parents. Mr. Banks can only react to how he was raised.”
The kids themselves, fine actors all, have proved excellent catalysts for Barnard’s concept as they discussed what motivates their reactions on stage. Through apparent coaxing and child-sensitive direction form Barnard, each young actor had arrived at the show’s central message on her/his own terms. Also, they project that vision because they’re all…. well, children.
For the rest of the adult cast, the central challenge was, no doubt, appearing always as the actors’ pre-school sons or elementary nieces might perceive them. Their fabulous interpretation of Mary Poppins will continue to play the Phoenix Theatre mainstage through December’s end.
It was the effervescent Bert, brilliantly created by Toby Yatso, that best exuded Barnard’s vision. From the sincere affection that bubbled out every gesture and word right down to his capable tap shoes, Yatso enveloped the crowd in wonder. Some of the audience seemed to have sentimentally glimpsed a long-legged shadow of Dick vanDyke following Yatso about the stage, but make no mistake. This most twinkling and lovable Bert is very much an original. Wearing an eternally impish but oh so kind expression, Yatso’s eyes outshone the dreamy, winking stars that sparkled on the set as he spun the narrative of Poppins magic.
Trisha Hart Ditsworth with graceful, spit-spot efficiency created an attractively proper Mary Poppins as well. We didn’t swoon over her accomplished voice as much as we might otherwise, perhaps because it was so inseparable from her practically perfect portrayal of the no-nonsense, sweetly-vain, magical nanny. Mary was Mary first and foremost, as it should be.
And boy howdy, did the dancers in this show earn their keep. They, and especially choreographer Sam Hay, made excellently creative use of their likely overtime hours. Along with outrageous tapping, the ‘Step in Time’ number sported a remarkably cool slow motion sequence.
Too, with Alice in Wonderland-like transformations, the coming to life of flora and fauna in ‘Jolly Holiday’ was wonderful. During it, the cast created a park borne of brightly hued imagination, with Poseidon’s statued son, a spry and likable Neleus (choreographer Hay), leading the way.
And ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’? The super speed visual spelling bee may actually have been more fun to watch than it is to say!
The cast overall was well-rounded and meticulously rehearsed in their endeavors to present a show through the eyes of a child. The Broadway version that Phoenix Theatre has brought to life demands much greater depth of Mrs. Banks than Disney ever asked. Shana Bousard steals none too little Poppins magic in the role, making her the genuine if conflicted strong-voiced glue that holds the Banks‘ troubled family together. Her character shines especially in ‘Being Mrs. Banks.’ Similarly, Clay Sanderson’s appropriately squinty but rich delivery of ‘A Man Has Dreams’ struck up an immediate empathetic rapport between Banks and the audience.
Maybe a child-centered perception of the show can be best encapsulated by Bert‘s poignantly simple explanation to the Banks‘ kids late in the second act. When Jane and Michael reach their most dejected and loveless point at home, Mary‘s magic transports them to the night-time London rooftops. The true alchemy, however, shows up in Bert‘s kind counsel. He reminds the two sadly frightened siblings that when the world gets dirtiest and roughest, the soot-covered generously affectionate and ever-abounding chimney sweeps–lofty for more than just their vocational perch-are angels in disguise. What better Christmas truth to ponder?