By Melissa Arnold
Sometimes, looking at life through a child’s eyes again makes everything better.
That’s exactly the opportunity you’re given in “Mary Poppins,” which kicked off a six-week run at the John Engeman Theater in Northport this week. And boy, is it a treat.
The Engeman Theater has a reputation for pulling out all the stops for its shows, and “Mary Poppins” definitely reaps those benefits with a stunning, colorful background, detailed scenery and a cast of seasoned professionals, many of whom spent time on Broadway.
Directed and choreographed by Drew Humphrey, this show is a Disney classic, with all the heartwarming moments and magical touches you’d expect. Set in early 1900s London, “Mary Poppins” gives a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy Banks family — workaholic husband George, his doting wife Winifred and their adorable-yet-mischievous children, Jane and Michael.
Try as they might, the Bankses can’t seem to find a nanny who will stick around – it might have something to do with the kids’ constant pranks and stubbornness. But Jane and Michael meet their match when Mary Poppins shows up from who knows where. Without any negotiation, she invites herself into their home and begins to work some real magic. Along the way, she introduces them to a host of quirky, mysterious characters that teach them about what’s really important in life.
The story’s unofficial narrator is Bert (Luke Hawkins), a charming chimney sweep with a deep affection for Mary Poppins and the Banks children. Hawkins will have you smiling the minute he takes the stage, and his appearances will tug on your heartstrings throughout the show. His tap dancing skills in “Step in Time” will leave you breathless.
Mary Poppins is played by Analisa Leaming, a newcomer to the Engeman stage with several Broadway credits under her belt. Leamings plays Poppins with all the poise and grace the role demands, with lovely, light vocals even on the highest notes. She also deserves a nod for the slight-of-hand tricks she performs throughout the show, maintaining character even during a rare moment when her props won’t cooperate.
Katherine LaFountain and Christopher McKenna play the Banks children with endless enthusiasm and joy. Both have an obvious love for the stage and there is nothing forced about their performances. You’ll fall in love with them both during “The Perfect Nanny” and “Practically Perfect,” two examples of their fantastic teamwork.
The special effects in “Mary Poppins” are what make the show truly great. Children in the audience might actually believe that Mary’s bag can fit anything, that she can instantly make sandwiches from a loaf of bread, or that she can even fly. Seeing her take flight with that famous umbrella is the highlight of the show.
The show’s set can rotate, expand and retract, which allows for easy transitions between several unique locations. The background is perhaps the most eye-catching element, however, with the London sky in silhouette and a colorful, illuminated sky that can create sunsets, nightscapes and even some psychedelic schemes.
Many of the supporting cast members are also worth a mention. In particular, George Banks’ childhood nanny Miss Andrew (Jane Blass) commands the stage during her brief performance. She has so much swagger and authority that when she’s called “the holy terror,” you’ll believe it in an instant. Also, the “bird woman,” played by Suzanne Mason, delivers a performance of “Feed the Birds” that’s both touching and haunting.
The ensemble has a huge role to play in “Mary Poppins.” Whether they’re seamlessly helping with set changes as chimney sweeps, tap dancing or serving as any number of whimsical creatures, they are an essential part of the show and every bit as talented as the lead actors. In fact, their performance in “Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious” and “Step in Time” are among the most impressive of the entire show. The two children’s ensembles, which will rotate throughout the show’s run, should be commended for their hard work and flawless routines.
While the band isn’t visible or credited at any point in the show, they do a flawless job in presenting songs from the original movie as well as many that were written for the stage version. Under the direction of Michael Hopewell, the band consists of keyboard, bass, drums and a variety of woodwind and brass instruments.
All told, “Mary Poppins” is exactly the joyful, inspiring tale so many of us seek out during the holidays. While it’s not a holiday-themed production, the theater is beautifully decorated for the season, and you can enjoy the occasional Christmas song and a festive drink at the piano bar before showtime.
Take a few hours this holiday season to leave your cares behind and gather the family for a night of laughter. You’ll be glad you did.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Mary Poppins” through Dec. 31. Run time is approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Ticket prices vary from $71 to $76. To purchase tickets, call 631-261-2900.