Tag – Film Review

If the idea of a film about a group of guys who drop everything, their careers, their families, their whole lives, and play of an obsessive game of tag for one month, every year, sounds like a lame-brained idea for a comedy – we’re talking the whole film – then you may be right; except for one thing. Tag is inspired by a true story.

In the real-world, a small group of friends use tag as a way of keeping in touch with each other. Eleven months of the year is spent planning how the surprise attacks will occur, then a month is spent acting out those often less than smooth moves as they chase each other, ready to commit an unexpected tag no matter where it takes them. There’s no prize to be claimed, no money at the end of the four weeks, just the satisfaction of knowing that one in the group will end up being ‘It’ and will hold that dishonor until things starts all over again the following year.

The unusual affair was brought to the world’s attention by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Five years ago, Russell Adams wrote an article reporting on how a group of men had played a game of Tag for 23 years. Writer Mark Stellen has taken that article and, along with co-writer Rob McKittrick, created a story loosely based on what he read. There’s a scene in the film where one of the characters is tagged at his father’s funeral while grieving. That really happened. That’s how committed these guys are.

The premise of the film is the same as the real thing. In 1983, five young school friends started chasing each other playing Tag. As Hoagie (Ed Helms) states in a voice-over, “You think you’re gonna be buddies forever.” And it’s true, most school friends really believe that. In reality, most drift apart. But not these guys. As a way of remaining friends once high-school was over, the tightly-knit five devised the game where throughout the merry month of May, playing Tag will always bring them together again, even though each live in a different part of the country. And it’s become an obsession.

They chase each other everywhere, through shops and stores, shopping malls, parking lots, up and down apartment buildings, through other people’s apartments, breaking doors, smashing through windows, causing all kinds of disasters to other people’s property, and yet rarely getting hurt or facing the consequences of damages done. When pothead and total waste of space, Randy (Jake Johnson) tries to escape the chase with Hoagie in pursuit, he crashes through a strangers’ home, smashes through their window, swings across a balcony, lands on someone else’s window a/c unit, which breaks and has him careening down, smashing onto a car, then finally to the ground. He’s a real-life Wil E Coyote; no matter how dangerous the stunt, somehow he gets up and continues to chase or be chased.

But the plot in first-time film director Jeff Tomsic’s movie thickens. One of the five, Jerry (Jeremy Renner) holds the title of having never been ‘It.’ Somehow, he’s managed to evade the touch, but that could change. Jerry is about to get married. It’s May and the hunt is on. Of course, why the character would ever make himself that vulnerable and agree to a May wedding would probably be your first question, but the writers have contrived an answer. Jerry’s fiancee, Leslie (Susan Rollins) is continuing the long standing tradition where all the women in the family marry in May. So, regardless of her husband-to-be’s madcap game with his buddies, a May wedding it is. Once the other four knows where he’ll be, they drop everything, and just as they always do, they group together, head north, and ready for the pounce.

So that it’s not a totally dominated male cast, Hoagies’ wife, Anna (Isla Fisher) comes along for the chase, and she’s just as crazy as the guys, perhaps even crazier. “God, I wish I had my gun here,” she states prior to the outdoor wedding ceremony. “So many good birds to shoot.”

Plus, there’s the attractive Wall Street Journal reporter, Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis) in the Russell Adams role. She’s initially there to interview successful businessman Bob (Jon Hamm) at his office, but once he interrupts the meeting to suddenly take off and join his tag-obsessed buddies, sensing a potential new story, Rebecca follows, observes, reports, and even becomes part of the game. And finally, there’s Cheryl (Rashida Jones) who knew the guys back at school. She’s at the wedding, brought in by Jerry to distract the high-school friends and maybe slow them down. It’s a character and a plot-line that goes nowhere, but at the very least, among all the slapstick and often painful looking shenanigans of the boy-men around her as they continue to play their child’s game, it’s always good to see the talented Miss Jones, even if in this case she’s given nothing to do. “Is she the Yoko?” asks the WSJ reporter. “I don’t get the reference,” responds the clueless Kevin (Hannibal Buress).

The chasing and all the running around starts to grow wearisome once you realize that the film is going to do nothing more than what the title promises. At a running time of 100 minutes, you may find yourself checking your watch more often than the norm. Even though the friends sign an agreement stating that during the actual wedding, no game-playing will happen, if you’ve seen the trailer, you already know that that’s a rule soon to be broken. It’s odd that at a time when studios at critic screenings are practically ordering reviewers not give away spoilers or surprises, limiting what can be discussed, in Tag it’s something they do themselves. Perhaps the one moment in the film where you’re supposed to be wondering whether one the four friends will attempt to tag Jerry while he’s taking his vows, all suspense is gone; the marketing department showed it in the trailer.

One thing in the film’s favor. Seeing home-movie clips of the real thing with the real people at the end of the film, including a glance at The Wall Street Journal article that reported it, somehow in a strange way validates the theme. It doesn’t make the film any better, but at least it gives it perspective. These blockheads really do this.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 100 Minutes    Overall Rating:  4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Incredibles 2 – Film Review

It may be fourteen years since the surprisingly fabulous adventure of Disney’s collaboration with PIXAR, The Incredibles, was first revealed, but there’s no time lost in the story-telling of the sequel; Incredibles 2 takes off almost at the point where the original left off.

It’s three months later, and before there’s a chance to catch a breath, the incredible Parr family perform another service for the safety of the town’s citizens. They prevent the villainous Underminer (John Ratzenberger, continuing in his role as PIXAR’s voice-over good luck charm) and his giant corkscrew of a machine from drilling through the streets and robbing Metroville Bank. But the carnage done to the roads, the buildings, and its train service is so over-the-top, the authorities feel they have no choice.

Progress made for unwanted superheroes everywhere in the first feature, where superheroes with super powers were welcome, must now go back into hiding. The world doesn’t want them. They can’t afford them. As the former agent of the National Supers Agency (NSA) and now the head of the Super Relocation Program, Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) says, “You want out of the holes, first you’ve got to put down the shovel.” And before you get a chance to scratch your head and wonder exactly what those deep-throated words of wisdom actually meant, the super family with their super duper powers, including close buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), are back in hiding, pretending to be normal again.

But there’s a light at the end of tunnel. Tycoon, Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) is a fan of superheroes and feels the world will always need them. With the aid of his computer savvy sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keaner), Deaver reaches out and invites the Parr family to take part in a publicity stunt. In the eyes of the public, if all goes well, it would make the supers look good again. But there’s a catch.

Only mom, Helen, aka Elastagirl (Holly Hunter) can participate. The rest of the family, dad (Craig T. Nelson), Violet (Sarah Powell), Dash (new voice, Huck Milner; the original Dash, Spencer Fox, grew older and his voice broke), and baby Jack-Jack have to remain in hiding, at least for the time being. But to make things comfortable, Deaver provides the family with a new, luxury, mountainside home in which to hide, far from the madding crowd. With dad in charge, the family can stay there while mom in her Elastagirl costume goes public once again.

What happens next is a new, dizzying adventure involving a super villain known as Screenslaver, a runaway ship with all the world’s leaders on-board, goggles that hypnotize, a book called Doozles Are Dozing, and a clueless pizza delivery guy. Plus there’s a new development with baby Jack-Jack. Those who remember the first adventure might recall how at the end of the film, Jack-Jack developed the sudden ability to burst into flame and become something close to resembling a devilish one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater of the Sheb Wooley song. In Incredibles 2, those talents are just the tip of a really dangerous and untamed iceberg. As dad instructs the kids when he has to leave the home, “No firing the baby around the house!”

In keeping with the James Bond flavor of the first adventure embedded with all the superhero business, from time to time, Michael Giacchino’s score faintly echoes those distinctive John Barry secret agent trumpet arrangements as Elastagirl, Mr. Incredible, and the rest of the family race at breathtaking speeds around town, zipping and zapping in and out of trouble at speeds faster than you can take in. And look closely at the interior design of that mountainside retreat given to the Parrs in order to remain comfortable while hiding away from the public’s eye. With its open area full of giant gray boulders by the entryway, an inside pool, and a view that overlooks a drop, you’d swear that writer/director Brad Bird had insisted his animators create the look of something resembling the Jimmy Dean secret hideaway in Bond’s Diamonds Are Forever.

The issue with Incredibles 2, however, is not so much the adventure – the climax with all of its last-second rescues, stunts, and overall creativity is actually more exciting to watch and certainly more inventive than many of the live-action superhero movies – nor is it with the wit, which is always there; it’s the lack of surprise. The original had a terrific adventure, but it was also an introduction to everyone and its unique, animated style. The enjoyment was more than simply being thrilled, it was the discovery of new and very funny characters presented with an individual look. In the sequel, we already know them; the style and the characters are already established. Baby Jack-Jack’s new found powers is the one area that develops family matters and takes things in a new direction, but overall, there’s a sense of something telling us that we’re really watching more of the same. That’s fine if what you’re looking for is a repeat of what you enjoyed before, but the appreciation of something fresh is absent.

Still, what we have remains very funny with characters you can’t help but like, plus the animation itself is every bit as bright, bendy, and kinetic as it was before, including the introductory Disney logo which is comically stylized to match the animation of everything to follow. It’s not quite the original – we now know we were spoiled – but when compared to animated offerings from other studios, it’s still pretty incredible.

MPAA rating: PG    Length: 118 Minutes    Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Ocean’s 8 – Film Review

Much of the marketing for director Gary Ross’ all-female ensemble cast of the heist comedy Ocean’s 8 refers to the film as being the fourth in the Ocean’s series. It’s really a spin-off. And given how the story concludes, depending on box-office reception and overall popularity, the whole thing will no doubt continue to spin in a new direction; at least to a 9, maybe even a 10. Knowing Hollywood’s lack of enthusiasm for risk-taking and a studio’s desire for easily identifiable franchises, consider it a given.

Originally inspired by the 1960 heist movie Ocean’s 11 with Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Las Vegas Rat Pack, Ocean’s 8 begins and ends with Sandra Bullock. She’s Debbie Ocean, sister to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean (the Sinatra role in the original) and it’s clear from the outset that being a criminal is in the family Ocean DNA.

If I were to be released,” Debbie explains to a parole board after serving more than five years at the New Jersey Women’s Prison, “I would just want the simple life.” She then adds, “You know, pay the bills.” Of course, she’s lying. That’s what she does. The moment she walks out, back into the real world with little more than a handful of dollars in her pocket, she heads straight to Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman and ingeniously cons the store out of giving her a handful of expensive beauty products. A saleslady even gives her the bag with which to carry everything through the Exit.

After that, without missing a beat, she cleverly extends the stay of an unwitting couple who had just booked out of a hotel, and moves into their room. The next step is to gather together her team of larcenous ladies who will meticulously rehearse what’s required to steal a Cartier diamond necklace, one that’s worth $150 million, and spread the wealth equally among themselves. “How long did it take you to work this out?” asks one of the gang, Amita the jewelry maker (Mindy Karling). “Five years, eight months, and five days,” replies Debbie, “Give or take.”

Like the trilogy of Clooney Ocean movies, the emphasis with Ocean’s 8 is on a world of elegance and style. The attractive characters move among the wealthy socialites of New York at the annual Met Gala, the fundraiser for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, ready to pull off the heist of the century right under the noses of real-life celebrities like Katie Holmes, Olivia Munn, Serena Williams, and Kim Kardashian. “Why do you need to do this?” asks Debbie’s partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett). “Because I’m good at it,” Debbie replies. In reality, being good at it is only part of the reason. As things develop, included among the several twists and reveals is a story of revenge regarding the reason why Debbie spent five years in prison in the first place. But, like the outcome, that’s something for audiences to discover for themselves.

In addition to Bullock, Blanchett and Kaling, there’s also Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, singer Rihanna, rapper Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum), and Helena Bonham Carter. And in keeping with the Clooney trilogy where Dan Cheadle delivered one of the most hilariously knee-slappingly awful London accents ever on film, Bonham Carter’s character speaks with a peculiar Irish accent. It’s not as painful as listening to Cheadle’s cockney, but it sounds odd, all the same. With a cast like this, one that also includes James Corden as a crack English insurance agent, flown in from London to investigate the crime, and annoyed that he’s having to miss an Arsenal football match, expectations of something special is high. Here’s the problem.

For a film billed as a comedy, Ocean’s 8 isn’t particularly funny. There’s mild amusement in watching Bullock maneuvering around upscale stores stealing beauty products, and there’s an element of fun watching an audacious heist in operation, but there’s little to no wit in either the dialog or the situations. And no one leaves an impression, not even Bullock who is at the center of most of the scenes. There’s no reason to side with any of the women and hope they get away with it, other than they’re played by performers you might like.

Like a well oiled-machine, the film is slick, but anything resembling a real conflict, one that has you leaning forward in your seat, questioning whether they’ll succeed, is absent. The whole affair just goes through the motions, ending with the stylish raising of a martini glass that was stirred when you had hoped for things to be just a little more shaken. Watching the actors talk of the fun they had on set and the camaraderie felt while filming may well be true, but it doesn’t come across on screen. It’s intriguing without being exciting. Perhaps in its effort to be classy, even chic, an edge was lost. The end result is underwhelming. Ocean’s 8 simply never takes off.

MPAA Rating: PG-13   Length: 110 Minutes   Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Hereditary – Film Review

It starts with an obituary. From there, right up until the final fade out, there’s a feeling of death and despair that permeates practically every frame of the two hour plus film. You can’t shake it off. And neither can Annie Graham (Toni Collette).

In the new supernatural horror film Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster, his first, Annie’s mother, Ellen has passed away. From what we learn, when alive, Ellen was not the easiest person to read. “She was also extremely stubborn,” Annie explains, “Which helps explain me.”

Annie and her family, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), pothead teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and the youngest, daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) live in a genuinely wonderful looking wood beamed home, one full of room-dividing doorways that appears lost, buried in a mountainous terrain that in reality is just a short drive from town and the rest of civilization, but feels isolated enough to seem as if there is no one else in the world. And now it’s haunted.

The one that appears initially the most disturbed is the thirteen-year old daughter. A young girl with an adult face, Charlie might be seeing things. It’s difficult to tell. It’s only when mom insists that her daughter accompanies her brother to a high-school party that Hereditary‘s story-telling gears shift. Something calamitous occurs during and after the party, an event that changes the course of everything. Annie has already started to attend a series of meetings intended to help those who have recently lost of loved one, but a second tragedy is too much to bear.

From there, ghostly sightings in the house become a regular occurrence. Mom’s insistance on a family seance doesn’t end well. Plus, there’s something lurking in the shadows, but gone once the lights are turned on. And discovering that grandma’s grave has been vandalized just a week after the burial doesn’t help.

Hereditary is a slow-burn, a horror for adults only that relies not on those ‘boo’ moments, the kind that has teenage audiences reveling in a series of jump-scares, but a film that, through discoveries and slow reveals, stretches a disturbing atmosphere to the point where you can stand it no more. It’s conclusion is horrific, genuinely horrific. And it’s horrific in a way fans of the genre, and those old enough to appreciate it, rarely get to see.

Several of the conventions are there. There’s the attic that you hope no one enters. A dream sequence that you think is over, only to discover that it’s a dream within a dream. A séance where the unexplained occurs, yet dad annoyingly dismisses the evidence of his eyes. Plus, because Annie is a sleepwalker, there are times when you’re not quite sure that what you’re seeing is real or part of her mounting, disturbed imagination. The resulting effect is a malevolent atmosphere that is practically tangible. When teenage son Peter, sitting at his desk in the classroom, sees his reflection in the glass of a nearby bookcase and it smiles back at him, the moment chills. The coldness that must run down Peter’s spine in that classroom is experienced not just by the boy, but also by us. And the climax, once we finally get there, is thoroughly disturbing. It ventures into the supernaturally fantastic. But by that point, audiences are well prepped to expect just about anything.

By the film’s conclusion, what you should remember the most is not so much the chilling sight of the grinning ghouls hidden in the shadows of the house, or what occurs during the final moments up in the treehouse, but the performance of Toni Collette. Her introductory monologue at the Losing A Loved One meeting as she presents herself to the group and explains why she’s there, beginning with, “I have a lot of resistance to things like this,” is riveting. But it’s that anguished howl of horror and despair she exhibits upon the discovery of the death of loved one you’ll remember the most.  It comes like an unbearable, searing pain, one that burns into you as though your flesh had just sizzled at the end of a red-hot branding iron. Like the film itself, it may be the stuff of nightmares, but it reaches out and stays with you into the waking world.

MPAA Rating: R   Length: 127 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Film Review

It’s a moment a parent never forgets. During the first year of our son’s life, my wife and I took turns looking after him during the day. We did it in shifts. I had the morning hours, then went to work. She had the afternoon after returning home from work. We passed at the door. Clearly, I had the better deal for one simple reason: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on PBS in the morning. For almost two years, every weekday, I got to watch Fred Rogers, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely and all the puppets from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, including Trolley. But it was something that happened in that first year, before our son’s birthday, that made all the difference.

During the first twelve months, he spoke little. But one morning, there we were, watching Fred Rogers go about his business, when the kind-hearted, nurturing television personality asked his audience, “Shall I feed the fish?” My son, who up until then had hardly said a word, leaned forward in his high-chair and said to the television screen in a soft, whispery tone, “Yes.” I did a double-take. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife when she arrived home from work. We had a breakthrough. Our son had said his first complete, fully legitimate word, and he used it correctly. And it was all because of Mister Rogers. A minor anecdote, perhaps, but in our world, at the time, it meant everything.

In the new documentary from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? sheds light on the man who must have inspired American children everywhere to not only say their first word, but to get an understanding on the complicated world around them, and he did it in his neighborly, singularly avuncular way. The show was aimed at children between the ages of 2 to 5, but everyone, everywhere was invited.

Using new interviews, archival footage, fresh animation, and TV clips of the show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor creates an endearing portrait of an ordained minister from Pennsylvania who believed that what we saw and heard on the screens was part of what we became. With that in mind, rather than preach and teach from the pulpit, Fred McFeely Rogers felt that his calling was reaching the hearts and minds of the nation’s children through positive reinforcement on television.

As the film expresses, Rogers believed that the feelings of a child were every bit as important as the feelings of an adult. “He was always trying to get a message across in every show,” actor Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) explains. Thus on June 7, 1968 in a special black and white episode of the show, after Robert F. Kennedy was killed, the glove-puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger asks Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), “What does assassination mean?” “Have you heard the word a lot today?” she responded.

It’s possible that several of the clips are scenes you’ve seen before. There’s the famous moment in 1969 (recreated in 1993) when, on a hot day, Rogers is in his backyard in the neighborhood soaking his feet in a small pool of cold water. Police Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons) enters and is invited to join him. The officer points out that even though he’d love to soak his feet with Mister Rogers and cool down, he didn’t have a towel. “That’s okay,” said Mister Rogers, and offers up the towel resting over his right shoulder. “You can use mine.” What’s important about that moment was that Officer Clemmons was black. At a time when segregation was still rampant in some parts of the country, and repulsive images of African-American children being forcibly evicted from a whites-only swimming pool was all over the news, Fred Rogers wanted to show children that sharing water and even a towel with someone else, white or black, should never be an issue.

Perhaps the best, and maybe the one moment when audiences watching the documentary will find themselves wearing the broadest of smiles, comes with archival footage of what happened when Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. President Nixon wanted the funding for PBS cut. After two days of hearing carefully prepared testimony from various public television supporters, lawyer and politician John O. Pastore, who chaired the subcommittee, was getting impatient. Basically he’d had enough and was ready to yank all PBS funding at the first opportunity. “Alright, Rogers,” Pastore announced from the bench with a somewhat dismissive tone to his gruff voice, “You got the floor.”

Instead of reading from his prepared testimony, arguing that shows like his own on PBS were invaluable when encouraging children to grow and to become good citizens, he put the speech aside and recited the lyrics to one of his songs from the show. Pastore listened, and was moved. When Rogers concluded, without missing a beat, Pastore surprised everyone by suddenly announcing, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

Although they are not mentioned by name, when Fred Rogers died of cancer in 2003, at his funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church stood across the road holding banners proclaiming that Fred Rogers would burn in hell. With twisted logic, their reasoning was that the TV host taught that everyone was special, including gays, which for them was justification for eternal damnation. Plus, in a clip from Fox Cable News, the three morning hosts of Fox & Friends stated that Mister Rogers was evil – no joke, they actually called him “evil” – insisting that he ruined a generation of children by telling them they were special. But when he was alive, as though holding a mirror in front of those three knuckleheads, Fred Rogers had his own definition of the word. “Someone who tries to make you less than you are is the greatest evil.”

Once the film is done and you reflect back, it’s not so much the documentary you’ll admire, it’s the man himself. Artistically, director Neville’s documentary breaks no new ground. The interviews that praise the man with accompanying clips are as you would want, and expect. It’s the subject matter that makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor special.

As the documentary states, the universal question is this: Was Fred Rogers really like that in real life? The answer is the same as my son replied when the TV host asked his audience in ‘93 whether it was time to feed the fish.

Yes.

MPAA Rating: (Not rated)   Length: 93 Minutes   Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Mary Poppins – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

When the magical nanny Mary Poppins (Renee Kathleen Koher) first arrives at the Banks household on Cherry Tree Lane, she doesn’t fly in on a strong wind blowing from the east. Like the genie in Aladdin, she appears in a sudden puff of smoke in the middle of the living room. Your first thought, other than what a neat, theatrical trick, is that the Banks family, who witness the moment, might remark upon it. After all, it’s not something you see in your home everyday. But no one does.

Instead, Miss Poppins, so named because of her habit of popping in and out of the lives of the children she’s there to look after, is immediately hired, beginning the fun adventure of guiding the troublesome children, Jane and Michael Banks, into appreciating their family and becoming less troublesome in the process. Though, of course, if you saw the wonderful 2013 movie where Emma Thompson played the prickly author of the novels, P. L. Travers, you’d know that the real reason the practically perfect nanny arrived at the upper-middle-class Edwardian London home was to save Mr. Banks.

For its 100th mainstage theatre production in Peoria, like the character herself, Mary Poppins is a practically perfect choice for Arizona Broadway Theatre to present when celebrating such an important milestone. From the beginning, the overall success of ABT has always been to know its audience and produce what a valley dinner theatre audience expects. It’s doubtful that a play from either Tennessee Williams or David Mamet will ever open on the stage at West Paradise Lane in Peoria, but something like Mary Poppins that offers song, dance, and a special kind of theatrical magic that can thrill an adult as much as a child, is exactly the kind of show that should be on its menu. Your only hope is that the theatre doesn’t mess it up. Fortunately, here, that’s not the case. Just like Mary Poppins once her job is done, ABT’s ambitious production of the famous Disney sixties musical takes flight.

Those who have never seen the stage presentation and are expecting a basic retread of the Julie Andrews film are in for a surprise. First, while much of the original score is intact, there are new songs, some written in the same vein of the Sherman Brothers style, but not quite as memorable. Plus, the characters themselves have an edge that is closer to how author Travers wrote them, rather than the likable Disney style that smoothed those rougher edges out. In fact, it was the Disneyfication of her work that made the Aussie author so upset.

When in 1993 she was approached for the approval of a new stage musical, Australian born Travers, who in her later years had moved from down under and fully embraced a more British way life, insisted that whoever worked on the redevelopment of Mary Poppins for the stage had to be English. No Americans allowed. However, she passed away three years later and never saw the completed work.

It’s difficult to say whether Travers would have approved of the end result, but it’s easier to predict how delighted most ABT audiences will be. And like that description of the flying nanny, being practically perfect can also apply to Koher’s performance as much as it does to the character. This is not necessarily the Mary Poppins of the Disney film. There’s a no-nonsense stern streak to Koher’s Poppins that is closer in spirit to the firmness of the nanny in the book than the gentler one presented in the movie. P. L. Travers objected to the casting of Julie Andrews in the film. She should have no reason to object to Koher.

The new script was written by the man behind Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, and if there’s anyone qualified to write about London life during Edwardian times, it would be Fellowes. Here, Jane and Michael Banks – played on alternate performances by either Gracie Palmer and Julianne Creed as Jane, and Wyatt Chamoff and Aaron McCaskill as Michael – tend to lean on a somewhat unlikeably snobbish side.

When meeting the Bird Woman (Chae Clearwood, whose rendition of Feed The Birds is a musical highlight; a great song, wonderfully sung) Michael considers her “a horrible old woman” and wonders why Mary Poppins would want anything to do with her. He even calls Bert (Chris McNiff) “dirty,” someone that would never get the approval of Mr. Banks. Plus, with an air of snotty superiority, Jane calls the Banks’ houseboy, Robertson Ay (Conner Morley) “insolent.” Even the likable Mrs. Banks (Beatrice Crosbie) who in the show is an ex-actress, not a suffragette, shows a superior attitude when talking of the necessity of a children’s nanny. “All the best people have nannies,” she tells her husband. Even though what she says at that moment sounds slightly elitist, Crosbie makes her character someone you warm to very quickly.

As Mr. Banks, ABT’s ever reliable Jamie Parnell – you may remember him in recent productions of Funny Girl, Oliver!, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweet Charity, and Camelot – gives life to the more difficult role of the father who loses his job at the bank. Mr. Banks displays a temper that Walt Disney would never have allowed David Tomlinson to exhibit in the film, but given the pressure that the character finds himself under, not to mention a backstory regarding the horrific nanny who looked after him when he was an impressionable and frightened child, Parnell manages to make the head of the family the most real and eventually the most sympathetic character of all.

As for that horrific nanny, Miss Andrew – not in the Disney film but in the book – Kathleen Berger may be on stage for just a short time in the second act, but she leaves with the kind of indelible impression that is hard to forget. Entering the stage in a clap of thunder, she’s the villain from a British Christmas pantomime, the kind that has children either booing, or hissing, or hiding behind the safety of their seats.

As Bert, the comical cockney jack-of-all-trades, Chris McNiff injects great fun into a character that is hard to explain. Like the film, you never really know anything about him, where he lives, or how it is that he even knows Mary Poppins. He even exhibits a little unexplained magic of his own during the Step in Time chimney sweep rooftop dance. Those already familiar with the stage musical may be disappointed that there’s no defying gravity moment when Bert climbs the theatre’s proscenium arch and tap dances upside down, but given the size of ABT’s wide stage, the difficulty may have proved insurmountable. Still, when the chimney sweep’s feet leave the ground and he performs a series of backward flips while hanging in the air by wires, the sequence appears impressive; he’s a foot-stomping Peter Pan covered in chimney soot.

Also impressive is Glen Sears’ layered scenic design. It begins with a painted scrim of the house on Cherry Tree Lane, which rises onto the set of the Banks’ home, which later parts to reveal the children’s wide bedroom. After that, it opens up onto the gateway to the local park. It’s only when we enter the park for a Jolly Holiday that the size of ABT’s expansive stage works against the show. Even with a cast walking and dancing from stage left to stage right, the cavernous arena is hard to fill, resulting with a curiously empty look and little atmosphere. When director Clayton Phillips’ otherwise engaging ABT production moves house after its final performance in Peoria on June 30 and starts a July run at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, the smaller and more enclosed stage area should make all the difference.

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of Disney’s Mary Poppins continues until June 30 then moves to Herberger Theater Center from July 6 until July 22

Posted in Theatre