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Mary Poppins

Luke Hawkins (Bert), Katherine LaFountain (Jane Banks), Analisa Leaming (Mary Poppins) and Christopher McKenna (Michael Banks) in a scene from 'Mary Poppins'. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro.

By Melissa Arnold

From left, Danny Meglio (Robertson Ay), Liz Pearce (Winifred Banks), Analisa Leaming (Mary Poppins), Katherine LaFountain (Jane Banks) and Christopher McKenna (Michael Banks). Photo by Keith Kowalsky
From left, Danny Meglio (Robertson Ay), Liz Pearce (Winifred Banks), Analisa Leaming (Mary Poppins), Katherine LaFountain (Jane Banks) and Christopher McKenna (Michael Banks). Photo by Keith Kowalsky

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.

Luke Hawking (Bert) and Ensemble performing "Step in Time." Photo by Keith Kowalsky.
Luke Hawking (Bert) and Ensemble performing “Step in Time.” Photo by Keith Kowalsky

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.

Analisa Leaming (Mary Poppins). Photo by Keith Kowalsky.
Analisa Leaming (Mary Poppins). Photo by Keith Kowalsky.

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.

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Kevin Burns and Katie Ferretti. Photo by Rita Egan

By Rita J. Egan

For the next several weeks, actors Katie Ferretti and Kevin Burns will transform into a perfect nanny and a charming chimney sweep in the stage production of “Mary Poppins” at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center. The local actors are excited to present this timeless tale where a magical nanny, with the help of her friend Bert, adds some much needed fun to the lives of the Banks children. In addition to being thrilled about their current roles, the two actors are also honored to portray the characters that Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke made famous in the 1964 movie.

“‘Mary Poppins’ is my favorite movie of all time, so to get to play such an iconic role that was created by such a great actor, singer, dancer is really just a dream for me,” Burns said.

Ferretti admitted that it can be intimidating to take on such an acting part, but at the same time she said, “It’s definitely exciting to play a role that Julie Andrews made famous. It’s like a dream come true to me, because I look up to her so much as a performer.”

The musical is the first time Ferretti and Burns have acted together. However, both have performed at the Oakdale theater before. In the past 10 years, Burns has appeared in numerous productions at the venue, including “Singin’ in the Rain” (Don), “42nd Street” (Billy) and the “The Rocky Horror Show” (Dr. Frank N. Furter). Ferretti said she has been acting at the theater for more than 2 years and has had roles in musicals such as “Into the Woods” (Cinderella), “Les Misérables” (Cosette) and “Guys and Dolls” (Sarah).

Despite her acting roles, not only at the CMPAC but also at the Merrick Theatre and Center for the Arts in productions of “Seussical” (Gertrude), “Cinderella” (Cinderella) and “Proof” (Catherine), acting is only a hobby for Ferretti. The 25-year-old works full-time as a behavior support worker at the Developmental Disabilities Institute, where she works with teens and adults with autism. While performing in musicals may be part-time work for Ferretti, she said she did take voice lessons in high school that prepared her for her favorite pastime.

For 26-year-old Burns, acting is a full-time profession. In addition to his work at the CMPAC, he has appeared at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, most recently as Frosty in “Frosty the Snowman” and the Troll in “The Snow Queen.” The actor said this summer he will be busy as a part of the Engeman’s children’s theatre and camp. When he first began acting, he worked at the Airport Playhouse in plays such as “Cabaret” (Victor), “Gypsy” (Yonkers) and “A Chorus Line” (Gregory). Burns said he has no formal training in acting, singing or dancing, which Ferretti said she was surprised to hear, especially when it comes to his dancing.

The actress said Burns is an amazing dancer and handles the many dancing numbers in “Mary Poppins” effortlessly.

When they look to the future, both would love to appear in a production of “West Side Story.” Ferretti said playing Maria would be a dream role, while Burns would love to play Riff. Other roles on their wish lists include Finch in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” for Burns, and for Ferretti, another Maria and another Julie Andrews role — Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Both are looking into possibilities for the near future, but nothing definite is lined up right now. “Who knows where the wind will take me?” Burns said.

Ferretti would like to continue balancing work with appearing in regional theater. And while Burns may toy with the idea of Broadway, he said right now he is happy performing at local theaters. When it comes to movies and television, both actors said they haven’t considered auditioning for film roles as they prefer working with live audiences.

“I like the fact that if you make a mistake the show has to keep going. You have to keep telling the story as opposed to ‘we can cut, we go back, we can reshoot,’” said Burns.
Ferretti agreed and added, “There’s something more honest about live theater than there is about anything filmed.”

For now the duo are having a great time with the cast and crew of “Mary Poppins,” who they said are a friendly group to work with as well as extremely talented. Ferretti said the crew backstage works incredibly hard to create a show for the audience “that’s like magic for them.” She said she wishes they could sell seats backstage so people could witness what exactly goes on.

Among the numbers performed during “Mary Poppins,” the two admit to having their favorites. Burns loves “Step in Time” while Ferretti said she has fun singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which she said after rehearsals she can easily spell. She also admits to getting misty-eyed when singing “Feed the Birds.”

When it comes to the excitement of being part of such an endearing story, the actors admit feeling like children at times, and they hope the audiences will enjoy experiencing the magic of “Mary Poppins” with them. Burns said at the end of opening night, he was brought back to his own childhood. “I got emotional when Katie came out to bow. I was standing next to Mary Poppins. It took me back to when I was in Disney World for the first time, and I went to go talk to the woman who I knew was an actress playing Mary Poppins, yet I still got emotional,” said the actor.

Theatergoers have until July 19 to experience the magic of “Mary Poppins” with Ferretti, Burns and the entire cast at the CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

Kevin Burns and Katie Ferretti in a scene from ‘Mary Poppins’. Photo by William Sheehan

By Charles J. Morgan

Revivals in the theatah are of two kinds: the supercolossal musical smash and the ones that high school groups can do handily. The latter is exemplified by “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the former by “Mary Poppins,” which opened in the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center’s massive venue in Oakdale on Saturday.

This performance was actually a paean to Pat Grossman, that factotum of the theater who directed it and did set design. His interpretive skills were as usual quite evident, but his ability at managing a highly mobile Victorian interior was noteworthy. Grossman’s minutely trained crew gave us a living room, kitchen, Mansard roof and upstairs bedroom all with the flavor of London in the era of the queen who gave her name to the age.

Choreography was by the indefatigable M.E. Junge. Her work in the tap number “A Step in Time” in Act II was outstanding; and in Act I’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was the signature hit in the entire show. One minuscule comment: Your scribe cannot understand why she continues to execute highly complex dance numbers in semi-darkness. Music was handled by Matthew W. Surico with his exemplary accuracy with electronic feed music.

Katie Ferretti held the title role. Her far-ranging soprano and excitingly beautiful stage presence were truly riveting, especially in “Supercali…” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Bert the Chimney Sweep was played by Kevin Burns. His mid-range tenor was put to great use as was his obvious acting ability. He had an engaging stage personality that coalesced neatly with Ferretti.

The cook was played by Linda Pentz. Her ability with tough, no-nonsense females was a touch of reality in this magical realism production. Speaking of reality, there was the infrastructure roles of the Banks family. Carl Tese was George, the paterfamilias, perfectly authoritatively Victorian, demanding Order and Precision.

Aloof from any “sentimentality,” he came across most flexibly in a demanding role involving emotional changes. Amy Dowdell was his wife Winifred. Her Mrs. Banks was a plaintive, highly melodic revelation of her role as a Victorian wife. The children, Jane and Michael, were played by Katherine LaFountain and Austin Levine. These two kids were on the boards for long stretches without exits. Their ability  to concentrate as well as to sing and dance was demonstrably professional. A double role as Ms. Andrew who replaces Mary Poppins briefly as the Nanny and Mrs. Corrie, a street vendor, was handled by Pamela Parker. The power of her voice in “Brimstone and Treacle” revealed an operatic soprano that caused the light bars to waver.

This production was a true example of how the concatenation of scene changes, done with palpable dexterity, the exactitude of Junge, the eye of Grossman for interpretation prescinding from his skill as set designer, the interfacing of all of the above with that aesthetic dimension of acting,  dancing and singing created a ringing smash hit — a tribute to what the CMPAC is capable of — an exciting evening of musical theater.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “Mary Poppins” through July 19. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.