Mary Poppins and Around the World in 80 Days Are Both Delightful Houston Stage Adventures

Lark (lärk), noun.
(1) A frolic
(2) A merry adventure
(3) Mary Poppins at Theatre Under the Stars
(4) Around the World in 80 Days at the Alley Theatre

Mary Poppins
Starring an incandescent Julie Andrews in her first film role (she won an Academy Award for her “practically perfect” nanny), Mary Poppins (1964) was Disney's most profitable movie up until that time, an international hit the moment it premiered, co-starring Dick Van Dyke as irrepressible chimney sweep Bert, and a veritable carpetbag overflowing with live action seamlessly stitched into sparkling animation – those tap-dancing penguins and runaway carousel horses are highlights of cinema magic.

Adapted by Julian Fellowes (way before his ultimate success, Downton Abbey), the stage Mary Poppins debuted in London (2004) after the huge successes of Beauty and the Beast (1994) and The Lion King (1997) convinced the mega-corporation that profitable stage shows could be crafted out of its beloved film catalog. Wisely, the producers tapped the unconventional British choreographer Matthew Bourne to co-direct with Richard Eyre. Bourne had previously created the sensation of contemporary ballet, Swan Lake (1995), with its male corps of swans and a same-sex love plot. His unconventional productions, Cinderella and The Car Man, cemented the deal, as Disney realized that something other than a literal translation of the movie would work better on Broadway. And anyway, you can't re-create animated dancing penguins, so Bourne's fertile imagination was sorely needed. He worked his magic as if scattering pixie dust.

While not especially faithful to the movie, the show morphs into an exceedingly crafty Broadway musical, The movie's astonishing make-believe has been brought down to earth with lots of dancing and singing, which is live theater's best special effect anyway. As with many Disney screen-to-stage adaptations, new songs have been added, and you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the catchy original Sherman Brothers tunes and those penned by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The fit is flawless, and the up-tempo “Anything Can Happen” is as good as anything from the film.

Movie sticklers be warned: The laughing bag Uncle Albert is gone; the absent-father motif is punched up; Mother's no longer a suffragette; and the great rooftop pyrotechnical display during the chimney sweeps' “Step in Time” is replaced by more mundane tap-dancing fireworks, but the whole thing works. Mary (the sweet-voiced Christina DeCicco) remains resolute and always right; Bert (high-stepping Danny Gardner) is still fun and carefree; and the little tykes (Kelly Lomonte and Sean Graul) are naturals at playing little tykes – a big hand for the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre at TUTS, where they've learned the best of stage lessons. With a radiant soprano, Courtney Markowitz is a sympathetic Mrs. Banks; while Jane Blass stops the show as evil nanny Miss Andrews, a character not in the film.

A multiple co-production with five other regional theaters, this new production is close enough to the original version but compact enough to fit in various houses. The one thing missing from the original stage show – and it's a big loss – is Bert's awe-inspiring tap dance around the proscenium during “Step in Time.” This gasp-inducing effect rivaled the eye-popping effects in the movie. It was audacious and totally surprising, a true Bourne moment, fit only for the stage. This version drops it, probably because of its complicated rigging and hours of rehearsal time, but it's sadly missed. Director Linda Goodrich fills the gap admirably, as does the talented, never-stopping dancing corps.

If you have any young 'uns ready and eager to experience the wonder and magic of live theater, there's no better “first time” show than this Disney beauty...

Around the World in 80 Days
...except, perhaps, Jules Verne at his best.

This antic romp, employing only five actors, takes the Verne classic and kicks it lovingly in the ass. If you've ever seen Patrick Barlow's lunatic The 39 Steps, in which Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 thriller gets lovingly skewered by four actors, then you know what to expect from Mark Brown's inventively witty treatment. The Alley splendidly performed Steps in 2010, and we're still giggling.

The Verne story is all here, faithful to the fantastic novel, but given a big wet kiss of vaudeville, English panto, Monte Python and the Marx Brothers. As it slobbers all over you, you beg for more.

Stuffed shirt Phileas Fogg (delightfully stuffed by Todd Waite) wages his august men's club that, yes, indeed, it's possible to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Before you can say jolly good show, he's off with his new valet, Passepartout (the inventively silly Evan Zes). Their transportation consists of steamer, elephant, train and ice sledge as they encounter an odd panoply of people in England, Egypt, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco and New York. Jeffrey Bean, Jay Sullivan and Emily Trask fill out the cast. No others are necessary, for all five are perfectly over-the-top, whether as Brahman priest, Calcutta mahout, xenophobic American, London newsboy, opium den owner, train conductor, etc., etc. Zes, though, is particularly adept at this screwball playing, devouring the imaginary scenery with heaps of low shtick and high jinks.

Constantly breaking the fourth wall, the actors – all quick-change artists – talk to us, toss out non sequiturs and mug shamelessly, which only makes everything that much more delightful. In a stage world that's framed by Victorian bargework like Brighton's Royal Pavilion, with a huge map painted on the circular floor, the world of Fogg is shrunk and minimal. But that's all we need. The elephant is an arrangement of table, foot stool, two chairs and a tassel for trunk. A train is conjured by four chairs set in a row, as the actors jostle up and down in the moving train. A boat is quickly summoned by ship's wheel and life preserver; the actors sway back and forth in the swells.

Two musicians in bartender mufti and bowler hats (Brittany Halen and Bradley Dean Whyte) add immensely to the festive spirit. The elephant's trumpeting is sounded on a vuvuzela, as are boat horns. Pistol shots are accomplished with old-time slapsticks. When the train stops, Halen squirts a can of compressed air to double for the hissing brakes. The calm seas are enchantingly created as Whyte lightly brushes the top of a drum.

All is terribly clever, and the show moves at a bracing clip. Abetted by Alejo Vietti's archetypal cartoony costumes, Hugh Landwehr's tasty morsel of a set, John Ambrosone's illuminations, Pierre Dupree's sound design and especially the diligent dialogue coaching from Pamela Prather, director Mark Shanahan splashes Verne with charm, invention, and abundant eccentricity.

Traveling the world with these pros is a grand, goofy adventure. There's no redeeming social message, no aching plea for tolerance, no dysfunctional family to drag us through the brambles – Nope, only sheer joy at a job well done. Pack your bags and a wide smile. This is an ideal trip for children of all ages.

Mary Poppins continues through March 20 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $37.75-$119.50.

Around the World in 80 Day continues through April 3. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $25-$67.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover