It is once again, and already, time to open an exciting summer season of Timber Lake Playhouse. In the 56th season of the area’s favorite summer stock theatre, opening show “Mary Poppins” is merely the start of another fabulous experience in the boonies.
We have barely recovered from last year’s season that included a stellar production of “Titanic, The Musical,” and now the time to enjoy “Ah, Wilderness!” “Evita,” “Scapino!” “Carousel,” and “Little Shop of Horrors” following ‘Poppins.’ If that’s not enough to book your summer enjoyment, Magic Owl Children’s Theater will present “Charlotte’s Web,” “Cinderella After the Ball,” and an all-area teen production of “Grease,” and much more.
Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s “Mary Poppins” is a musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman carried the production into what has always been “everyone’s favorite nanny.”
Here’s the kicker: The book is by Julian Fellowes. Recognize him? He is the magic creator behind our beloved series, “Downton Abbey.” Through Fellowes, the prim and properness of the era take stage as well as the ‘Poppin-esque’ idea that children are, essentially, dreamers—about people flying, and even walking on ceilings. (Wait for this!)
This production is directed by Zachary Gray, a frequent flier himself at TLP, having been at the helm of “A Funny Thing Happened at the Forum,” “Gypsy,” and “Hairspray” among many others including Chicago credits on stage and off. His attention to detail about body language and groupings in ‘Poppins’ is especially noticeable with additional choreography wherever necessary as well as “Step in Time,” a piece that you must shimmy your shoulders and shuffle your feet off to Buffalo with grapevines galore. His characters sometimes breathe and act as one message that reaches beyond a script of plain words. The blocking speaks for itself, often requiring subtle nuances that cross the line from literal to…magical. It seems as though every stage direction results in a tableau, an image, a careful placement.
Unlike the “Mary Poppins” movie, this stage version is contemporized into a deeper message that enhances the clash of characters in one household where costumes (Emma O’Dell) and lighting (Riley Wood) take on a persona themselves. The stage version of anything is more often an impactful treat to the senses than the film. But fear not, A “Spoonful Of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is still there to the beats of musical director Andrew Milliken.
Choreography by another TLP fav is Sawyer Smith, returning from a multitude of successes in recent history including far and wide performances of “Cats,” “Rent” and “A Chorus Line” at the Paramount Theater and a touring “Hairspray” on the Royal Caribbean. If it’s comedy, drama, or ridiculousness, he can do it. He proves his prowess with this choreography with vigorous action and energized electricity. And to top it off, Smith returns in Act II in his favorite role as the darkened Miss Andrew in drag with dripping enunciations of high camp. Exhibiting hysteria is his highest accomplishment to date.
There are no less-than-talented voices, dancers, or actors in this musical. TLP performers are carefully selected to hit the ground running from opening to closing at the last show. There’s no time to lollygag meantime. Mary Poppins herself is none other than guest performer Erica Stephan, whose credits include “Footloose,” “Les Miserables,” and “A Chorus Line,” among Chicago credits at Goodman Theatre, “Wonderful Town” and “The Little Mermaid” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. She hits the high notes and all the notes between as Mary Poppins while she interacts with children stars Lily Leding as Jane and Gabriel Pauley as Michael of the Banks family.
About the children, both Leding and Pauley were most professional, as Artistic Director James Beaudry notes about carrying the two acts with talent and singing ability. Other Banks household members to stir the pot are Samantha Bonzi as the indomitable Miss Brill, staffer Hope Elizabeth Schafer as Katie as staffer Katie Nana and Kieran McCabe as goofy Robertson Ay. A most notable voice and perhaps underused is Charles Mayhew Miller whose vibes are engaging.
Just when you think you’ve heard the best of the best voices, here comes Bird Woman Elya Faye Bottiger in “Feed The Birds.” She emerges as the downtrodden figure to bridge the gap between reality and magic.
As if dropped from ballet heaven, dancer Christopher Kelley as Neleus emerges from University of Cincinnati already moving his way upward one step at a time. A Chicago native, he’s already taken over stages in “A Chorus Line,” and “American Idiot,” and “A Funny Thing Happened at the Forum.” When he dances, the world stops at every pors de bras, every left-turning precision, and every cabriole along the way. Stunning. Stunning.
Grant Alexander Brown portrays the role of Bert as perhaps an official segue between scenes. At every entrance and every exit, he has something to say or do as the narrative of ‘Poppins’ unfolds. He returns after graduating from Western Illinois University and proud of his TLP credits that include, Huck Finn in “Big River,” as well as “Our Town” and “25th Putnam Spelling Bee.” He is a most versatile actor and would fill a niche in any cast of any play.
Ken Singleton is also a favorite at TLP after his outstanding vocal work on the deck of “Titanic” last season. His other roles are, “Rock of Ages,” ‘Forum,’ and Gaslight of last season. This part as the unadventurous father of the Banks household exhibits more of his acting and less of his voice, though contrasted with wife Winifred by Kiersten Frumkin becomes a good fit. Resident company member Frumkin is a graduate of Chicago College of Performing Arts and will appear this summer in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Her voice is a pleasant blend when in a duet, but morphs into a stronger message in solo.
As is often said, “All good things come to an end.” Alas, Artistic Director James Beaudry observes his last season with TLP. It’s been a joyous ride for him, staff and audiences alike. He has been a powerful force in the successes of every show that he choreographed, directed, and put his professional touch upon.
“Mary Poppins” opens Thursday evening June 1 and runs through June 11, including four 2 p.m. matinees. Evening shows at 7:30 p.m. (No show Monday June 5.) The boonies theatre is a hop, skip and a jump to 8215 Black Oak Road, Mount Carroll. Call the box office at (815) 244-2035 or www.timberlakeplayhouse.org for tickets, group rates and more information. Don’t miss the cash bar before and during the show!