While I expected to enjoy Quad City Music Guild's Mary Poppins on Friday, I didn't anticipate being as mesmerized as I was by this stage adaptation of the Disney film. The movie's songs by Robert and Richard Sherman are there, with additional tunes by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and a book by Julian Fellowes that adds elements from P.L. Travers' children's-lit classic. And the result, while three hours long, is an improvement on its cinematic inspiration, with the additional material even more interesting than the familiar story elements.
Director Harold Truitt's production features some remarkable set pieces, including a grand staircase and fireplace in the Banks home, a bedroom that rotates to become a rooftop, and a park with a gorgeously painted backdrop of trees and grass. Designed by Truitt, the show's stunning and large-scale designs are interchanged frequently - with the unfortunate trade-off being overly lengthy scene changes. (During Friday's performance, the orchestra ran out of music during one especially long one, and had to start playing over again.)
Lighting designer Zach Baker, meanwhile, contributes color to the main backdrop, frequently changing the sky behind the show's silhouette of a stylized London cityscape. Baker's achievements are most notable in the scene of Mary Poppins (Heather Herkelman) facing off against her replacement Miss Andrew (Valeree Pieper). As each actor sings their part in "Brimstone and Treacle (Part 2)" during their skirmish, Baker changes the sky's color, with green hues accompanying Miss Andrew's lyrics that match the horrible tonic she uses to punish children.
The addition of the Miss Andrews figure is one of the new elements that fascinated me here. Not only is Pieper in rare form as an almost maniacal monster who strikes fear in George Banks (Rob Keech) - who was nannied by Miss Andrews himself when he was young - but the Roald-Dahl-esque nastiness of her character and scenes help the otherwise sugary plot go down with more excitement. (And the manner in which Mary Poppins dispatches her is just as darkly delicious.)
Herkelman also diminishes the saccharine in her role as the titular, magical nanny, as her Mary is poised, condescending, and self-important almost to the point of cockiness. I kept debating whether I actually liked Herkelman's Mary, and decided it was hard to argue with the character's arrogance because she backs up her bragging with action. She's neither mean nor uncaring, just aware of her personal perfection and not afraid to tout it, and as this Mary Poppins, Herkelman is practically perfect in every way.
So, too, are Brennan Hampton and Ted Brown as her wards Jane and Michael. Hampton displays a tremendous amount of nuance when Jane sings "The Perfect Nanny," an advertisement she and Michael wrote to solicit a new governess; there's a simmering delight layered behind feigned guilt when Hampton sings "We won't hide your spectacles so you can't see, put toads in your bed, or pepper in your tea." For his part, Brown elated the audience with Michael's aggressively perky description of Miss Andrews as looking "like someone who eats her young!"
While certainly capable of playing almost any part in this production, Sheri Olson shines as Winifred Banks, a compassionate woman obviously caught between her husband's insistence on hiring a nanny and wanting to dote on them herself. Keech manages to be both gruff and sincere, avoiding caricature even when George is focused on financial success at the expense of all else. When the man learns his lesson and finally loosens up, Keech remains consistent with his initially established character, but also exudes a joy that clearly suggests his inner child is glad to be free. The favorite character of many Mary Poppins fans, though, is the jack of all trades Bert, and in the role, John Whitson does not disappoint. From his dashing good looks to his rich vocals, he's quite the charming chimney sweep.
Tom Vaccaro is pleasing as Neleus, a park statue that comes to life and frolics with the children. The Banks servants are hysterical, as Susan Granet's beleaguered Mrs. Brill and Michael Byrne's goofy Robertson Ay provide comic relief, oftentimes far in the background. Hillary Kaefring brings confident, fun-loving life to the Talking Shop owner Mrs. Corry, another added character who helps introduce "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (a number boasting choreographer Susie Adams' most inventive steps, with the cast forming letters with their limbs). Even Sandra Atkinson leaves a lasting mark through her touching turn as the woman who invites people to "Feed the Birds."
Perfect casting, incredible sets, infectiously energetic choreography (especially for "Step in Time"), and impressive costumes by designer Cindy Monroe make this production an excellent way to end the Quad City Music Guild summer. I've no doubt even those overly familiar with the movie will still enjoy this Mary Poppins immensely.
Mary Poppins runs at the Prospect Park Auditorium (1584 34th Avenue, Moline) through August 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-6610 or visiting QCMusicGuild.com.