Many years ago, my mother was a theater and film critic for a South African newspaper group. So there came a time when she was obligated to review "Dumbo," the Disney animated classic about a flying elephant. She hated it, and panned it. As a young person, I couldn't understand why she might have done that, but as an adult, I do. Beloved classic or no, it's important for a reviewer to look at what they see and give readers their honest and unsentimental critique.
With this in mind — and despite the fact that it pains me to say it — Camelot Theatre's current production of "Mary Poppins" is not good.
I will list some of the possible reasons for this statement: It was opening week. I was squashed into a seat at the very back of the theater in what was, perhaps, an acoustically problematic area. I have an English grandfather and grew up in the Commonwealth — as such, my take on the proceedings might not correlate with the assumptions that an American audience may bring to the show, which is, of course, based on the story of a much-loved magical nanny as penned by PL Travers, the Australian-born British author.
I would hope, then, that many viewers will enjoy this show where I was left cold. There are some good costumes. There are some charming moments. The inclusion of a live dog into the proceedings will most likely draw out a mawkish enthusiasm from certain patrons who are so inclined.
In my professional capacity, however, I am forced to play The Grinch. For starters, sound design on the show was abysmal. I heard perhaps half of what was said onstage. Muffled mikes and problematic speaker feedback obscured many of the lines that might have made the show more funny and less painful.
Actors were acceptably prepared but uninspiring, with the exception of Rigo Jimenez as Bert the Chimneysweep, and a delightfully chipper Dean Cropper as Michael Banks.
The subtler aspects of the English class system were entirely lost here. Mary Poppins (Stefani Potter) sported a half-baked accent that was nowhere near correct, and her attitude towards Mrs. Banks (played too sentimentally and with insufficient flintiness by Kelly Jean Hammond) set the tone for the evening.
In the film version, Julie Andrews walks a near-perfect line between kind-but-firm professional nannydom and appropriate deference to the master and mistress of the house. At Camelot, Ms. Potter's Poppins would have found herself out on the curb in short order if her peculiar combination of snooty contempt and insubordinate dismissiveness towards Hammond's Banks had even come close to what I saw on stage.
Jon Oles' Mr. Banks was far too neurotic and scattered to have the makings of a proper upper-middle class Englishman — who should have been played in a more nuanced and sinister manner. In the Commonwealth, there is no class insecurity. Everyone knows exactly where they stand, and it's never unambiguous enough to warrant the sort of conspicuous, flailing anxiety that we see displayed here. It would behoove the entire cast to do a crash course in the nuances of the English class system, as is easily accessed in such popular television shows as "Downton Abbey" or from a careful viewing of Disney's "Mary Poppins" movie itself.
On to the good. Production design — with the exception of sound — is well thought out, and costumes are excellent and have an appropriate seasonal charm. Particularly delightful are the park scenes, where assorted statues come to life, as well as a darling scene in the nursery where Jane and Michael Banks's toys animate in the night and dance together.
I can safely say that the child actors in this production are its saving grace — as mentioned before, Mr. Cropper is delightful, as is 12-year-old Ava Code as Jane Banks; she is among the most accurate when it comes to tone and class in a scene where she dresses down and bosses about a hapless kitchen assistant.
As with last year's "Calendar Girls," "Mary Poppins" tries for plummy English charm but ends up butchering the subtleties of the culture, the customs and, especially, the accents. If Camelot intends to continue on with this type of merry Anglophile programming, it would be wise for the company to invest in a really good dialogue coach.
While I can see how "Mary Poppins" might be worth supporting if you've got a friend or child onstage, the overall impression one gets as an unprejudiced patron is that this particular pile of flummery only warranted a couple of half-hearted bites before being pushed to the side in hopes of finding better fare at the place next door.
“Mary Poppins” runs about two hours with a 15-minute intermission. The show runs through Dec. 31 at 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 to $36 and can be purchased at camelottheatre.org or by calling 541-535-5250. The box office is open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and one hour before performances.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.