Moonlight Stages in San Diego-adjacent Vista once again trumps L.A. and Orange Counties by offering Southland audiences the much-awaited First Regional Production of a Big Broadway Smash, this time a terrifically staged and performed Big-Stage, Big-Cast, Big-Orchestra Disney’s And Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins.

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Is there a more crowd-pleasing musical for children of all ages than Mary Poppins? (By children I mean anyone from kindergartners to the 50/60something Boomers who first fell in love with the 1964 Walt Disney film on which it is based to “children” in their nineties, Mary Poppins having first debuted way back in the 1930s as a series of novels by P.L. Travers.)

While film purists may protest the excision of Uncle Albert (and “I Love To Laugh”) as well as Mrs. Banks’ extrafamilial role as “Sister Suffragette,” the 2006 Broadway smash restores the Mary Poppins novels’ come-to-life statues and a visit to Mrs. Corry’s gingerbread shop.

1 The majority of the now-standard Sherman Brothers songs remain (“A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”), with an extra half-dozen or so George Stiles/Anthony Drewe creations added to compliment Julian Fellowes’ somewhat darker-than-the-movie book, Mary Poppins’ self-congratulatory anthem “Practically Perfect” and the infectious eleventh hour “Anything Can Happen” proving particular treats.

Ultimately, the very best way to enjoy Disney’s And Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins is to cast aside any preconceptions you may have from either movie or books and simply delight in its magical ride.

And what a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ride it is at Moonlight, even minus the 11,000-pound Banks House that traveled with Mary when the musical toured the country from 2009 to 2013.

Mary Poppins has everything a musical smash ought to have, starting with hummable songs and unforgettable dance numbers, choreographed here by the masterful John Vaughan, who directs quite masterfully as well. Oh, and there’s magic too, and not just when Mary Poppins pulls a roomful of fixtures out of her trademark carpet-bag purse.

7 Moonlight favorite Jessica Bernard once again proves her talent and versatility, moving from Legally Blonde’s mean girl Vivienne and Young Frankenstein’s “untouchable” Elizabeth to the prim-and-proper (and veddy British) Mary Poppins, the Southland leading lady as radiant as ever and with a soprano and acting chops to match.

Native South African Leigh Wakeford could hardly be more versatile either, morphing from gayer-than-gay Carmen Ghia (in 3-D Theatricals’ The Producers) into Cockney Everyman Bert, with a showstopping performance of “Step In Time” that has the triple-threat gravity-defyingly tap-dancing all the way round the Moonlight Stages proscenium—only one of Wakeford’s many stellar chimney-sweep moments.

Fellowes’ book makes the Banks family considerably more dysfunctional than in the film, turning George into a near absentee father (and victim of his own emotional childhood abuse) and Winifred a former actress who longs to be more than simply an extension of her stuffed-shirt of a husband.

5 Real-life marrieds Steven Glaudini and Bets Malone are more than “practically perfect” as the not-quite-happy couple, Moonlight Stages Artistic Director Glaudini’s spotlight solo in “Precision And Order” soon turning into a major production number featuring a stageful of bank clerks. SoCal musical theater superstar Malone gets her own heartfelt center-stage turn, singing “Being Mrs. Banks” in a lovely legit voice quite unlike the great big belt she showed off in last year’s Next To Normal (at the La Mirada Theatre).

In supporting roles, Southland staple Dynell Leigh and teenage newcomer Drew Bradford make for a splendid comic duo as housekeeper Mrs. Brill and underling Robertson.

Bird Lady Debbie Prutsman sings a touching “Feed The Birds” before returning to terrify (and dazzle) as Nanny-From-Hell Miss Andrew, a tour-de-force “Brimstone And Treacle” sending Prutsman’s powerhouse pipes into the stratosphere.

8 Child actors Abby DeSpain and Nate Carman are young charmers as Jane and Michael Banks, Justin Matthew Segura a dance standout as statue Neleus, and Ralph Johnson a staunch and sturdy Admiral Boom (doubling as Chairman),

In smaller roles, Brian Banville (Park Keeper), Allison Nicole Knight (Katie Nana), Matthew Naegeli (Von Hussler), Mitzi Michaels Smith (Miss Lark), Shaun Leslie Thomas (Policeman), Jason W. Webb (Northbrook and Valentine), and most notably Amber J. Snead (a particularly fabulous Mrs. Corry) all acquit themselves with kite-flying colors.

Completing the all-around terrific cast in tracks which display their Grade-A song-and-dance talents (and countless costume changes to book) are Katie Whalley Banville, Amy Beth Batchelor, Siri Hafso, Danny Hansen, Kyle Hawk, Neleus understudy Ryan Kanfer, Morgan McGeehan, Emma Nossal, Molly O’Meara, Dylan Pass, David Sherlock, Bert understudy Tim Stokel, and Matthew Thurmond.

3 Particular mention must be made of the production’s remarkable song-and-dance numbers, another feather in Southern California treasure Vaughan’s cap, sequences which have statues leaping and pirouetting, toys and bankers kicking up their heels, and chimney sweeps tapping and high-kicking like Radio City Rockettes, not to mention the myriad kites flying high above the stage in “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.”

Speaking of flying, ZFX, Inc. merits oohs and aahs for flying effects, because yes indeed, Mary Poppins does take off.

Sets provided by Music Theatre Wichita provide a more than adequate backdrop despite being less sumptuous than those of the National Tour. Costumes provided by Tuachan Center For The Arts are perfectly marvelous (and coordinated and executed by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone). Bonnie Durben is properties master. (Props are also from Music Theatre Wichita.) Peter Herman gets top marks for his wig design as well.

Paul A. Canaletti, Jr.’s vibrant lighting design and Bryon Andersen’s mostly topnotch sound design deserve mention too, as do musical directors Kenneth Gammie and Randi Rudoloph for some fabulous cast vocals, Gammie conducting the 16-piece Mary Poppins orchestra to perfection.

Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager and Eden Mitchell assistant stage manager.

If Sunday night’s audience was any example, Mary Poppins is one musical sure to keep its youngest audience members every bit as enthralled as their parents, grandparents, and other assorted adults.

Truly in a class by itself, Disney And Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins is the best kind of family entertainment, i.e. the sort no one is ever too old to love.

Its first Southern California regional production at Moonlight Stages is a winner from start to finish.

Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

–Steven Stanley
July 20, 2014
Photos: Ken Jacques

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