It wasn’t terribly long ago that Aurora Theatre was in Duluth, producing quality work but in a very small venue. With the company’s move to its current location in downtown Lawrenceville in the spring of 2007 and a larger stage, it’s given Aurora the opportunity to take chances and mount heftier-scale musicals, a clear and long-time passion for Ann-Carol Pence, the company’s associate producer.
Musicals aren’t the bane of existence for the company, but they’ve become an undeniable strength. Among numerous others, Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folktale (2012) was a commercial and critical breakthrough, as was the Suzi Bass Award–sweeping Les Miserables last year. The company’s new Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical isn’t just a wonderfully calibrated, exciting production: it’s one of the most joyous Atlanta musicals in recent memory, directed with aplomb by Justin Anderson.
Running at Aurora through August 31 and opening the company’s 2014–2015 season, Mary Poppins retains the whimsy and charm of the books and the Oscar-winning film but has become a full-fledged musical/entity in its own right. Mary Poppins (played by Galen Crawley) is the magical flying nanny who whisks into Cherry Tree Lane and forever changes the lives of the Banks clan. William Murphey and Liza Jaine portray George and Winifred Banks while Sarah Carroll (alternating with Mabel Tyler) and Benjamin Harding (alternating with Joseph Masson) play the two naughty children, Jane and Michael. Bert (Andy Meeks) is Mary’s chimney sweep friend that she implores the children to like despite his scruffy, dirty outside appearance.
Poppins author P. L. Travers sold the stage rights to producer Cameron Mackintosh with the stipulation that only English-born writers be involved, not Americans, due to her dislike of the film version and how she thought Disney treated her. After the musical debuted in London in 2004 — with a book by Julian Fellowes and additional music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, adding to the original score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman — it shifted to Broadway a few years later. A touring version of Mary Poppins came through the Fox Theatre last spring and was middling at best, light on the magic and energy. Aurora’s version is far superior.
This is an expensive production, certainly the most lavish in Aurora’s history, and it shows. Sydney Roberts’ costumes — built from scratch — are gorgeous and colorful, and the cast works on a set by Shannon Robert that easily morphs from all sorts if locations, from an office to a children’s bedroom to a park.
Anderson has long been one of the busiest, most versatile directors in Atlanta, but nothing he’s done compares to this. It’s confident, stylish work. Even at a running time at over two and a half hours, the show never dips. It’s the kind of theater experience that kids can love as well as nostalgic adults as well as musical theater junkies.
Alongside choreographer Jen MacQueen, Anderson has created very assured, creative versions of “A Spoonful of Sugar” and the show-stopping “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The duo’s work on “Step in Time,” in which Bert introduces the children to his fellow chimney sweeps, is a remarkable number that seems Broadway-ready now. The 11-person backstage band goes through more than 30 numbers, led by Pence, ably serving as the music director here.
An awful lot of talent is in this production. If there’s one slight bobble with the cast, though, it’s Mary herself. Crawley is a lovely actress and has a warm, calming persona, but she doesn’t leap off the stage the way an iconic character should. (She does fly, however.) Meeks, on the other hand, is larger than life — there’s a palpable joy in his performance, a gleam in his eye. He almost steals the show.
The kids are convincing without being overblown, and the musical boasts impressive supporting turns by the likes of Murphey, Jaine and Jessica De Maria as Mrs. Brill and Bird Woman. Heidi Cline McKerley — who directs more than acts these days — does some career work, sparking as a variety of characters, especially villainous nanny Miss Andrew. Her “Brimstone and Treacle” number is a hoot.
Few companies in the area are doing the kind of consistent musical theater Aurora Theatre is doing now — or taking the kinds of risks. This spring’s The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, albeit a bit uneven, was memorable for its score and casting — and for the company taking a chance on a fairly unorthodox musical. It’s great to see the company growing and finding new depth. As the characters of Mary, Jane and Michael sing in a typically charming number here, Mary Poppins is “Practically Perfect.”