Review: Mary Poppins a dollop of cheer for even the most dour curmudgeon

Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Nov. 26-Dec. 29, 2019
Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh
Book by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Megan Watson

Deborah Hay, centre, leads a strong cast and versatile ensemble in the Grand Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins. Photo by Morris Lamont

I have never been a fan of Mary Poppins, the classic 1964 Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Too saccharine, too fantastic and too stylised, with characters that seemed caricatures of themselves. And those dancing penguins. Oy.

In the current production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical at the Grand Theatre, the sweetness remains. But it’s cut from pure cane, rather than something entirely artificial, dispensed by a film studio’s paper envelope. The result is a show that preserves the story’s precious fantasy while delivering considerably more humanity.

That additional depth is the result of a script that slightly re-imagines the story while preserving its central, fanciful themes (“Anything can happen if you let it,” for example). But the powerful performances in this show are what carry it to the rooftops and, at its opening last night, had the audience clapping along and cheering at every opportunity.

The Grand has a history of bringing talented actors to its stages to produce stand-out performances. But in Mary Poppins, the considerable artistry of a clutch of additional cast members, under the direction of artistic associate Megan Watson, conspire to tell a story in which characters possess depth as well as musical dexterity.

The experienced Deborah Hay is practically perfect as the Banks children’s whimsical nanny. But her performance is firmly buttressed by the superb renditions of Alexis Gordon as Winifred Banks (a shining jewel in her own right), Mark Uhre as Bert (a rising star, to be sure), the highly versatile Jan Alexandra Smith as both Bird Woman and the austere Miss Andrew, and Ben Carlson as the embattled George Banks. Hayden Baerstsoen and Abi Verhaeghe shine as Michael and Jane Banks, while Phoebe Hu has a way of making Mrs. Brill, the housekeeper, an entertainment in her own right.

The show’s lighting, especially the projections used against a plain white set and giant scrim to convey setting and space, are efficient and its animations mesmerizing. Stratford-based Stephen Cota’s often-demanding choreography is a consistent visual delight. And the always-dicey flying effects seemed, on this night, to operate flawlessly.

There were a few opening-night snafus. A couple of projections were out of sync with the action. Some of Mary Poppins’ magical props appeared to function a bit stubbornly. And there were times when the orchestra, conducted by Craig Fair, overpowered the vocalists on stage. These will no doubt be ironed out over the first week or so of the show’s month-long run.

As I mentioned in a previous post, P.L. Travers intensely disliked what Walt Disney and his subordinates had done to her literary creation with their 1964 film fantasy. Would she have approved of the stage version? Who knows.

But for Londoners wanting to see home-grown talent in lead roles, rendering a highly challenging musical with all the joy and charm of the holiday season, this is a show not to be missed.

Winifred Banks (Alexis Gordon), Mrs. Brill (Phoebe Hu), Robertson Ay (Giovanni Spina), Michael Banks (Hayden Baertsoen) and Jane Banks (Abi Verhaeghe) get a stern lecture from George Banks (Ben Carlson) in the 2019 production of Mary Poppins at the Grand Theatre. Photo by Morris Lamont

A spoonful of Mary Poppins to sweeten the holiday season

Just as the Christmas holiday season can make or break a retailer’s year, so too it can have a dramatic impact on an arts institution’s bottom line. And this year, the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., is placing its hopes on Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s musical stage rendition of Mary Poppins.

London native Deborah Hay stars in Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins, running Nov. 29-Dec. 29 (previews Nov. 26-28) at the Grand Theatre. Photo by Morris Lamont

The musical, based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film, brings to life the meaning of the Grand’s current motto, World Curious London Proud: three of the main characters in the show will be portrayed by actors with deep London roots. Deborah Hay, critically acclaimed for her work at the Stratford and Shaw festivals, takes on the title role. Mark Uhre stars as Bert the chimney sweep, and Alexis Gordon plays Winifred Banks, the mother of the two rambunctious children who drive successive nannies away. Jan Alexandra Smith, well known to London audiences for her work as an actor and choreographer over nearly three decades, portrays Bird Woman and Miss Andrew. Grand Theatre artistic associate Megan Watson directs.

The Grand — and Watson — will be looking to Mary Poppins for box-office results that will eclipse last year’s holiday show, A Christmas Carol. Though critically acclaimed (partly because of its casting of Smith as a female Scrooge), that production of the Dickens classic was a slight disappointment in terms of sales. Also a factor may have been the fact that A Christmas Carol had been the holiday show during the 2017-18 season as well — and been well-received. In that show, Scrooge had been played by Shaw Festival veteran Benedict Campbell.

The Disney/Cameron Mackintosh musical collaboration has an interesting history. Travers (her name at birth was Helen Lyndon Goff) emigrated from Australia to England in 1924 and created the character of Mary Poppins nearly a decade later. Critically acclaimed at publication, the book became the first of a series of eight. Animator and movie producer Walt Disney saw potential in the character and, after a decade and a half of trying, finally persuaded Travers to sell him the rights to the story.

The relationship, however, became tortured. Travers was displeased with Disney’s film version of her story, even though it garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and won five.

Travers was approached in 1993 by British theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh about a stage version of the story. He acquired those rights, but on the condition that the creators be English and that none of them had been involved in the Disney film version. Travers died in 1996. In 2001, Mackintosh and Thomas Schumacher, representing one of the Disney companies, collaborated on a new stage show, using some of the music from the original film. The stage musical opened at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2004.

Fans of the Disney film will quickly notice the differences between the stage and film versions of the Mary Poppins story. The Grand Theatre’s production features original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drew. The book is by Julian Fellowes, whose name has become closely associated with an even greater franchise: the Downton Abbey TV series and feature film. Fellowes was originally brought onto the production team by Disney and Mackintosh precisely because of his deep understanding of British aristocracy and class distinctions in the early 20th century.

London native Mark Uhre plays Bert the chimney sweep opposite Deborah Hay’s Mary Poppins in the current production at the Grand Theatre. Photo by Morris Lamont

Grand Theatre runs black ink into 20th consecutive season

The Grand Theatre has announced it finished the 2018-19 season with an operating surplus of $34,812 — the 20th consecutive time it has managed to close the books on a season with a surplus.

The year-end figure brings the theatre’s accumulated surplus to $645,353, an enviable position for any arts institution.

The Grand Theatre on Richmond Street in London, Ont., one of the city’s cultural jewels. It opened in 1901.

Executive director Deb Harvey provided additional figures as follows:
• Ticket sales accounted for 56 per cent of earned revenue, contributing $4.3 million to an operating budget of about $7.7 million.
• More than 104,000 patrons attended 241 performances, which included seven shows on the Spriet stage, four performances on the McManus stage, a High School Project musical and five Jeans ‘n Classics concerts.
• Donors and supporters provided more than $1.7 million — about 22 per cent of revenue — over the course of the season.
• The theatre donated more than 500 tickets, valued at more than $48,000, to 234 local charitable organizations to be used as prizes for fundraising events.
• Additional support for the theatre came from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the City of London.

The successful 2018-19 season was Dennis Garnhum’s third as artistic director and his second in terms of artistic programming. He succeeded Susan Ferley, currently artistic director at the Cameco Capitol Arts Centre in Port Hope, Ont., in 2016.

Review: The Runner offers a breathless, penetrating journey

The Runner
A Human Cargo Production
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Nov. 5-16, 2019
Written by Christopher Morris
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Starring Gord Rand

See the narrow, elongated stage in the photo below? Besides his simple costume and a remarkable script, that’s all actor Gord Rand has to work with in The Runner. Black drapes obscure the fact that it’s really one long treadmill. And it’s against the relentless motion of that treadmill that Rand delivers a truly penetrating experience.

Canadian actor-writer-director Gord Rand portrays Jacob, a volunteer with ZAKA, a non-governmental search, rescue and recovery group in Israel that responds to terror attacks, disasters, accidents and other emergencies. Publicity photo by Gillian Gallow

Rand portrays Jacob, an on-call volunteer with the search, rescue and recovery group ZAKA. Its mandate is to offer first aid to victims of terror attacks, natural disasters and accidents. When necessary, it collects human remains — limbs, organs, blood, tissues — to ensure that Jewish burial laws, which stipulate that dismembered bodies must be buried in their entirety, are observed. Jacob is single, lives with his mother and always keeps his cellphone nearby, even tucking it under his pillow at night.

Jacob, though, finds himself in a quandary. He has responded to a call in which he found an Israeli soldier dead alongside a road. Nearby, an Arab woman, shot in the back, lay dying. True to his oath of doing no harm and helping anyone in need, he turned her over, lifted the black hair from her face with his fingers, and administered CPR. He believes he has done the right thing, but he is now the subject of recriminations — from superiors, from members of his community, even from within his family — about saving the woman who may have killed the soldier.

We learn of the incident and its aftermath as Jacob walks and runs. He is in constant motion, endlessly striving against the teeming currents of self-doubt, moral judgments and larger-than-life questions. Periodic explosions and disorientation punctuate Jacob’s journey inward, which is as alternately relaxed and fevered as is his physical pace.

Against the background of this call and two others (including one to a mass grave in Ukraine), there are near-desperate explorations of unfathomable problems. If God is good and if God implanted that goodness within humankind, why does so much evil occur? How are human beings supposed to make moral choices? Why, of all places on Earth, did God choose a miserable, rocky strip of parched soil in the Middle East as Israel’s home? Why do ZAKA’s leaders appear to preach one ethic and practise another? Why do Jacob’s closest relatives not comprehend who he really is? There are scores of questions and dilemmas as Jacob’s pace relaxes and quickens.

Lighting and sound design are crucial components of this play. They quicken audience members’ pulses as moral crescendos build, then deliver shock and awe at critical moments, sometimes toying with our expectations and timing. Only once or twice do those bursts of sound and light seem unmotivated, designed more to toy with the audience rather than effectively complement the script.

Rand’s performance is outstanding. He deftly delivers an hour-long monologue peppered with anger, confusion, doubt, recrimination, cynicism and joy — with an occasional dash of humour — all while in constant motion atop a narrow treadmill whose speed is in continuous flux. His portrayal of Jacob is at once exhilarating and exhausting; for him, it must be both of those things, as well as emotionally draining.

Rand is a runner in his personal life and, coincidentally enough, last year starred in a feature film titled Man Running, written by Donna Brunsdale and Gary Burns. Burns also directed. The film opened in Calgary earlier this year.

If you’ve ever questioned the ability of theatre — especially a one-hour, one-person play — to deal proficiently with life’s biggest questions, this show is an unequivocal answer.

Another review, this one by London Free Press arts reporter Joe Belanger, can be found here.

Review: Confusion, doubt are part of finding identity in This London Life

This London Life
Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Oct. 15-Nov. 2, 2019
By Morris Panych
Directed by Morris Panych
Set and costume design by Ken MacDonald
Guest artists: Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Allister MacDonald, Rebecca Northan, Ryan Shaw, Braeden Soltys and Wendy Thatcher

Ken MacDonald’s set for This London Life features a two-storey home that employs a forced perspective. Photo by Morris Lamont

Soon after being named artistic director of the Grand Theatre in 2016, London native Dennis Garnhum hatched a plan to somehow feature his hometown — the city that gave him his artistic wings — on the theatre’s main stage.

To achieve that goal, Garnhum knew he’d have to sell executive director Deb Harvey on the concept, find additional financial resources and then seek out a reliable, well-known Canadian playwright to come up with something that would comedically explore the perennial confusion between the British metropolis and its Ontario namesake. Two years later, This London Life, by Morris Panych, is the happy result.

The story revolves around mistaken identity. Jimmy (Allister MacDonald), a low-level gang member who is trying to get back home to London, England, from Mexico via Calgary with a stash of cocaine, awakes from a deep, painkiller-induced stupor in London, Ont., thinking he is on the other side of the Atlantic. Confusion abounds, both for Jimmy, as well as for those who find themselves as hosts and new acquaintances of the dazed stranger with whom Nan (Wendy Thatcher) has returned from the baggage-claim area of the airport.

The bewilderment is exacerbated by common place names (Covent Garden Market, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Baker Street, Victoria Park, etc.) and the comedy includes one-liners that poke fun at local peculiarities. Western students, interminable delays at railway crossings, recycling trucks and London’s airport (“international in name only”) are among the dozens of local references sprinkled throughout the script with a levity and humour that leaves audience members nodding in knowing recognition.

And while Allister MacDonald, as Jimmy, plays a central role in the proceedings, it’s Lambton County Grade 7 student Ryan Shaw, as foster child Walter Winch, who steals the show — not only by dint of his dramatic workload, but by the precociousness of his character’s attitude and the speed of the young actor’s delivery. He could, in fact, afford to adjust his timing here and there to become a bit more deliberate, milking some of the lines Panych has given him. And Wendy Thatcher, the Shaw Festival veteran who plays the idiosyncratic Nan, is a joy to watch, especially in her more wistful moments.

Ryan Shaw, in his role as the irrepressible Walter Winch, examines an X-ray of the leg of Jimmy, played by Allister MacDonald. Both actors are making their debuts at the Grand in This London Life. Photo by Morris Lamont

By the end of the play, its characters (mostly) separate fact from fiction and Panych ties up the loose ends. But there’s a strong underlying current: that each of us is in search of identity and our place in the world. For Jimmy, the search is quite literal and desperate. Young Walter hopes for a future with more stability that the foster-child life that’s been his lot. Nan, a British ex-pat, is conflicted but generally happy with the sequence of events that have made Canada’s London her home. Rae-Ann, played by Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, is a disaffected teenage busker for whom the road toward identity is only just beginning. Even cities, it turns out, go in search of identity when they live in the shadows of their namesakes.

For his part, Panych draws on a lifetime of achievement as a playwright and director, not only onstage but off it. He knows the characters he’s brought to life, of course, but here he also reveals a sharp awareness of his benefactor, his major sponsor and his audiences, and demonstrates his literary range. This is not the Morris Panych who teased out themes of loneliness and empathy in Earshot (2001); who explored social stratification and the meaning of work in The Dishwashers (2005); who forced audiences to confront fractured family dynamics and death in The Trespassers (2009); or who fingered truths about justice through comedy in The Shoplifters (2015). This London Life, by contrast, is more tailored-to-fit; more corporate. In bringing Panych’s formidable skill and reputation to bear on his London-versus-London concept, Garnhum ensured that the project would get done and, secondly, get done in a way that would be reliably timeless, not unlike the hiring of a well-known film director to produce a one-minute spot or a music video.

In all these ways, This London Life succeeds: Audiences in Ontario’s London get a chance to see and hear themselves on stage. Panych adds a show with a distinctly different kind of accent to his already impressive body of work. The Grand gets a world premiere and another notch on its play-development belt. Tourism London can consider sponsoring the show again — at another venue, with another cast — when events (think the Juno Awards or the World Figure Skating Championships) bring visitors from around the world to this “other” London. (In fact, Tourism London agreed to sponsor the development of three plays over a five-year period, through grants totalling $75,000, in addition to marketing support.)

And in the end, Garnhum gets precisely what he set out to achieve: An open love letter to a hometown, infused with wit, laughs and provincial charm.

Rebecca Northan, known to Grand Theatre audiences as the star of 2018’s Blind Date, returns as Mrs. Simpson, who has her suspicions about Jimmy, played by Allister MacDonald, in This London Life. Photo by Morris Lamont

For another review of This London Life, see London Free Press arts and entertainment reporter Joe Belanger’s review here.

Grand prepares a comedy of errors with This London Life

Those of us who hail from southwestern Ontario know all too well the zeal (or was it a lack of imagination?) with which British pioneer settlers named their outposts, settlements and towns after places back home.

Windsor. Scotland. Dublin. Stratford. Exeter. Leamington. Southampton. Peterborough. The list is long. The same holds true for London, of course — and that’s the foundational premise behind This London Life, opening at the Grand Theatre this weekend.

Mrs. Simpson (Rebecca Northan) welcomes Jimmy (Allister MacDonald) to her home in the Grand Theatre’s world premiere production of This London Life. Photo by Morris Lamont

Jimmy, a Brit with a dubious past, breaks his leg abroad, loads up on painkillers, then attempts to fly home to London, England. Impaired by the drugs he’s ingested, Jimmy is unaware that he has been delivered to London, Ont., rather than his intended destination. Local references and identical place names — Covent Garden Market, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Thames River, Exeter, etc. — only exacerbate the confusion. Hilarity promises to ensue.

Commissioned by Grand artistic director Dennis Garnhum through the theatre’s COMPASS New Play Development program, This London Life was written and directed by Morris Panych, with set and costume design by Ken MacDonald.

With a new play such as this — and given that its playwright/director will remain on site through this week — preview performances take on heightened importance, said Garnham at a media call yesterday.

“With most shows, you have a proven history,” Garnhum said, referring to scripts that are set in stone and staging that is presumptive and somewhat preordained. With the world premiere of a new play, he said, there is none of that.

“The rewriting will continue until opening night,” Garnhum said, adding that preview performances “were really built for new plays.” The writer studies the audiences just as carefully as they take notes on actors’ performances. To that end, the Grand held an invited reading in its rehearsal hall at the beginning of the production process, and offered a closed performance to theatre staff and ushers. Then previews began last night.

“We’re still rewriting; that’s what happens with a new show,” Garnhum said…. With Morris Panych, you kind of stack the deck…. Morris can figure it out.”

This London Life opens at the Grand Theatre on Oct. 18 and runs through Nov. 2. It stars Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks as Rae-Ann, Allister MacDonald as Jimmy, Rebecca Northan as Mrs. Simpson, Ryan Shaw as Walter Winch, Braeden Soltys as Emery and Wendy Thatcher as Nan. Check this site on the weekend for a review.

An advance story by arts reporter Joe Belanger of The London Free Press is here.

The High School Project: postscript

As the Grand Theatre‘s 2019 High School Project comes to a close, the following are a few additional thoughts on the annual endeavour and its impact on London-area students.

As noted earlier, Titanic The Musical was the Grand’s 34th HSP over the past 21 years. To celebrate the tradition, the theatre sent email invitations to more than 800 HSP alumni to a special performance on Saturday, Sept. 21. Thirty-five attended.

Grand Theatre program
The program from this year’s production

That “may not seem like a lot, but so many alumni are away at school, or have moved on from London. We had a display of memorabilia, and offered them a drink ticket for the post-show reception, which included pizza,” wrote Jennifer Matthews, the Grand’s communications manager, in an email. The theatre is also aware it has an incomplete list of HSP alumni email addresses, and is always looking to bolster it.

And what about the impact on the students who participate?

In the short term, it’s a ton of hard work. Rehearsals begin in August, but stretch into the new school year, as students are busily getting adjusted to new courses, new teachers and compressed personal schedules. They need the support of their teachers and fellow students to keep up with the classes they must occasionally miss.

According to H.B. Beal Secondary School teachers Jessica Dawson and Tracey Iddison-Gubbels — both teach dance and drama — there is enormous value in the “journey.” The audition process itself is valuable, they say, regardless of the outcome. It teaches resiliency and reveals students’ strengths and weaknesses in ways few other experiences can.

Michelle Rees, the arts learning coordinator with the Thames Valley District School Board, takes an even broader view. Besides adjacent skills in the business of theatre, lighting, sound, costuming, sets and promotion, students who become part of the annual HSP build their “global competencies” for career success, especially in “soft skills,” no matter the vocations and professions they eventually choose. These include critical thinking and problem solving, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, collaboration, communication and global citizenship, Rees says.

A number of HSP alumni have gone on to various careers in the arts. They include actor Trevor Patt, music director and composer Doug Price, actor Jonathan Gysbers, director Andrew Tribe, actor Callandra Dendias and actor Mark Uhre.