Does it really take a crassly commercial one-two punch to bring the excitement and buzz back to Halton Theater? It certainly seemed that way on Saturday night as a new production of Mary Poppins climaxed CPCC Summer Theatre's 41st season. Attendance at CP's previous musicals, handsomely crafted productions of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Li'l Abner, had only continued the anemic trend that first showed up this spring when CAST's Angels in America underperformed at the box office.
But while CP's evening fare sidled over to Pease Auditorium with Over the River and Through the Woods, Disney's The Little Mermaid Jr. was drawing morning crowds — and enthusiasm — that hearkened back to the first summer season at the Halton in 2006. Now with a second Disney brand name, the magic is returning to primetime. Center rows were filled to the rear of the orchestra, and there were even people in the balcony for the first time in at least two summers.
Nor has the turnout caught CP by surprise. The run includes performances on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, plus a Saturday matinee — not at all business as usual.
Noticing the glitter on a pair of wee little shoes worn by a sleepy princess being carried out of the hall by a mighty dad — just a couple of minutes before 11 p.m. — I had to suspect there was some Mermaid carryover from the healthy number of parents who had schlepped their young to the morning shows during the previous weeks. Whatever is sparking the upsurge, hundreds of ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages are getting exposed to CP's heightened 2014 production levels for the first time.
With Mary flying onto the scene and making multiple airborne exits, the technical dazzle and polish easily eclipsed Pimpernel and Abner — and everything else staged at the Halton since the Wizard of Oz flying jamboree opened the landmark 2006 summer season. Scenic designer Robert Croghan has constructed both the children's upstairs bedroom and the interior of the Banks' home on 17 Cherry Tree Lane, including a three-stage staircase, to unfold like pop-up picture books.
Aside from these imposing pieces, there are at least three stage-filling drops from Croghan that further enhance the fluidity of the production, including a view across London's River Thames, a starry midnight sky and a colorful three-line schoolroom presentation of every last letter in "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Abetting the wow factor of all this are spot-on costumes from Dorothy Driggers, moody lighting from Gary Sivak and a fairly tight orchestra conducted by Drina Keen.
We'd probably need to add a few thousand miles to Lucianne Hamilton's and Michael Bingham's odometers for them to look absolutely perfect as Mary Poppins and her grimy coconspirator Bert. But this is a dum-diddle-diddle-diddle-um-diddle-aye Disney confection after all, and the energy and good cheer that Hamilton and Bingham ceaselessly exude look more natural on their youthful faces. Hamilton's voice loses some of its bloom in the top third of her range, so you'll have multiple reasons to find her "Spoonful of Sugar" more delightful than her "Practically Perfect." She's deliciously sly and mysterious toward the Banks family, yet despite her proper erect posture, I can't quite bring myself to describe her as starchy.
After his hilarious exploits in Abner and Mermaid, Bingham's charm doesn't surprise me at all, prancing across the stage and the rooftops as Mary's accomplice in leading the Bankses away from class snobbery and materialism. We also find that Bingham can more than hold his own when Bert fronts a dance ensemble — and that he can take all the tap moves choreographer Eddie Mabry tosses at him in stride. When all the "Chim-Chiminy" and "Supercal" repeats begin to weary me — the spell-outs of "Supercal" are particularly excruciating — there is no flagging in Bingham's sunny energy, and the audience clearly loves him as much as they love Hamilton.
Mermaid clearly signaled that CP was raising its game in kiddie productions, and Poppins confirms that trend, for I can't recall a primetime summer musical that depended quite so heavily on child actors. As Mary's younger projects in her gossamer nannying, Katlyn Gonzalez and Thomas Young get to be naughty and difficult as well as adorable and angelic. Both of them are nearly flawless, as good as you might find over at Children's Theatre, but I hope it's not too churlish or heretical to declare that I don't find the kiddies' reformations nearly as interesting as their parents'.
Here we find a matched pair of treasurable performances by Beau Stroupe as George and Alison Rhinehardt as Jane Banks. Stroupe can take us along most gradually as George realizes that the worth of people isn't measured by their bank accounts, while Rhinehardt must leap more suddenly from submissiveness to assertiveness as George's wife. As little guidance as Jane gets on how to be the ideal wife, even less is gleaned from P.L. Travers' stories on how this couple become good parents. Yet Stroupe and Rhinehardt, perhaps because they sing so well, are instrumental in convincing us that the Banks clan is near perfection at the end. Thanks to the Mary magic, of course.
Whether you prefer vinegar or saccharine, you'll find plenty of pleasure in the chief cameos. You don't fully understand George until you encounter his termagant nanny, Miss Andrew, and with the help of a couple of ugly moles spotting her malign visage, Caroline Chisholm gives us her gist. And if you want to come home with lessons on charity and kindness, Lisa Smith Bradley as the beggar singing "Feed the Birds" is an ardent teacher.