REVIEW: 'Practically Perfect' 'Mary Poppins' is coolest Artpark musical yet

John Barsoian and Emilie Renier in "Mary Poppins" at Artpark. 

Review and photo by Joshua Maloni

The late James Brown has been in the news lately, thanks to a biopic debuting in theaters this weekend. "The Godfather of Soul" was called "The hardest-working man in show business."

In his absence, that title belongs to the cast and crew behind Artpark & Company's production of "Mary Poppins." All day Thursday, they rehearsed, shared notes, put on elaborate costumes, moved set pieces, and dance, danced for not one, but two run-throughs of the nearly three-hour show. If that wasn't enough, they took time to mingle and snap photos well past midnight with fans, patrons and sponsors.

That burst of energy didn't go unnoticed. The revelry that spilled over into the courtyard began inside the Mainstage Theater, where more than 1,000 people watched the 8 p.m. opening night performance. Throughout the show, crowd members were heartily clapping, laughing and cheering for said cast and crew.

Mary Poppins, the character, brings color and magic to a dreary English home. The musical, likewise, brought sparkle and whimsy to an otherwise dull and damp day. It was a highlight of the week for many, and a reminder that Artpark & Company offers more than rock concerts.

As the story goes, George and Winifred Banks (Paschal Frisina III and Debbie Pappas) have lost that loving feeling, while their not-so-precious children, Jane and Michael (Jessica Riloff and Samuel Fesmire), have run amok - and run many nannies into early retirement. In their hour of need, Mary Poppins (Emilie Renier) appears - out of nowhere - and delivers a spoonful of ... tough love, insight, life lessons ... and, yes, sugar.

Mary and her bestie, Jack-of-all-trades Bert (John Barsoian), show the Banks family there's more to life than what they see with their eyes. Just as importantly, the dynamic duo rekindles the parents' love for their children - and vice versa.

It was a joy to watch the cast of actors share the spotlight (and try out various British accents).

Frisina is one of the few non-Elon University-connected cast members. The reliably on-point actor - a Niagara University grad - is a model of consistency. He has become the backbone of every Artpark cast since the venue opted to bring back the Broadway musical almost a decade ago.

Frisina's Mr. Banks was stodgy and yet lovable.

Pappas has shown great range in three Artpark performances. Theatergoers couldn't boo loud enough for her Wicked Stepmother in 2012's "Cinderella." This time around, they couldn't help but feel sympathy and hope for her Mrs. Banks.

Riloff and Fesmire burst onto the scene last summer as von Trapp children in "The Sound of Music." They've twice shown they can act, sing and dance with their more seasoned contemporaries. Plus, they have great comedic timing.

Well-known Buffalo actress Loraine O'Donnell's "Bird Woman" was odd, and reminded us a lot of the pigeon lady in "Home Alone." Her portrayal of nanny Miss Andrew, meanwhile, was outrageously good. O'Donnell's facial expressions, singing and Banks-menacing drew the biggest laughs. She was sinister and silly and completely over the top.

Here's hoping O'Donnell plays the villain at every Artpark show for the rest of time.

Barsoian, meanwhile, made the term "triple-threat" more than just oft-used words.

There's no eloquent way to say dude just brought it. He was the narrator, the lead dancer and Mary's sidekick. Barsoian had to sing, dance, act, sweep the occasional chimney and help the audience navigate the plot. He showed great poise in accomplishing each task.

We now know Barsoian is a capable lead actor.

What can be written about Renier that hasn't already been said? She is unquestionably the most popular actress Artpark & Company has employed. Renier has cast a spell over audiences who can't help but utter, "Emilie is amazing," after each performance. This writer can't walk five feet in or around the theater without someone coming up and complimenting the actress who, prior to "Mary Poppins," played Cinderella and Maria von Trapp.

There's a line in "Mary Poppins" where Mr. Banks says, "It's that Poppins woman. She is responsible for all of this!"

The same could be said for Renier: Her praise is the result of her hard work. Renier's talent is a "Star Wars"-sized tractor beam that draws audience members in at will.

Captivated theatergoers recognize Renier's talent and beauty. Her castmates applaud her warmth and giving nature, and say that's what makes her appealing.

Renier doesn't hog the spotlight, but that doesn't mean we don't want her to. She is a gifted actress, singer and dancer. One day when Renier is crushing Broadway, we will say we knew her when.

"Mary Poppins" is bound to be a family-favorite thanks, in large part, to the crew's creative vision. The dance numbers are big and bold and truly intricate. The set, props and flying scenes are wonderful, and really make this show look and feel magical.

CGI, eat your heart out.

Mary Poppins is "Practically Perfect." Artpark & Company's show bearing her name is, too. It's a bit too long, and there are some moments that might be weird for small children (think giant, angry toys). But the musical's life lessons and pure joy make it a must-see for all ages.

Visit www.artpark.net  for "Mary Poppins" show times and ticket prices.

John Barsoian and Emilie Renier in "Mary Poppins" at Artpark. 

'Mary Poppins' brings magic to Artpark (or is it the other way around?)

Preview by Joshua Maloni

Disney wasn't shy about promoting its special 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of "Mary Poppins" last Christmas.

In a "sneak preview" video, credits read, "For 50 years, one film has defined ... Disney magic," as dramatic music and imagery unfolded in the background.

Famed movie critic Leonard Maltin was quoted as saying, "Walt Disney's crowning achievement," before a smiling - flying - Julie Andrews was shown.

Song clips and movie highlights then reminded us this Academy Award-winning story is not just well-known, but iconic.

To successfully present "Mary Poppins" in 2014 - to bravely take on Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, the song and dance numbers - let alone the flying - would take real magic.

Artpark & Company conjured up some hocus-pocus in an attempt to bring the Disney favorite to Lewiston. In a fairytale series of events, key ingredients came together, allowing the venue to present "Mary Poppins."

First off, the show became available.

"We've been trying, in recent years, to concentrate on doing a Broadway musical that is very family-oriented," said Artpark & Company President George Osborne. "We started with 'Beauty and the Beast,' which was quite successful. We did well with 'Joseph' and 'Sound of Music' and 'Cinderella.'

"So then they released the rights to 'Mary Poppins' about a year ago. We've had this show on the books scheduled for almost a year now."

Once the musical was booked, Artpark & Company needed two more key ingredients: Mary Poppins, and something to enable her to fly around the stage.

The former was easy. The latter took a little more effort.

"We're lucky that we've discovered this young, wonderful talent - Emilie Renier - who's coming back to do the third straight year as a lead," Osborne said.

Renier starred as Cinderella in 2012, and then as Maria in last summer's "The Sound of Music." She was nothing less than brilliant in both roles.

"There's only, like, two companies in the U.S. and Canada that actually handle all the rigs required to fly people," Osborne said. "We've engaged this company, and they'll be coming in and putting up the rigging and giving lessons to the 'Mary Poppins' characters so they'll be safe."

Once all the pieces were in place, it was time to get to work on bringing one of the most famous movies of all time to the stage.

The "Mary Poppins" cast and crew have been hard at work inside the Mainstage Theater for several weeks preparing for the musical, which will be presented July 31 through Aug. 8.

"I think it's going to be interesting for audiences, because Mary Poppins, in the movie, is very sweet. And she's not quite so sweet in the show," Renier said. "It's funny, because I keep getting notes from our director that's, like, 'You have to be harsher. You have to be sterner.' And I'm, like, 'Ohhhh, noooo!'

"Mary Poppins is very different in the musical."

The musical's story centers on George and Winnie Banks and their children, Jane and Michael, who have sent myriad nannies packing. When Mary Poppins arrives, she is determined to straighten the kids out - and to rekindle their relationship with their parents.

John Barsoian, who plays Bert, the title character's close friend, said, "I think with Mary Poppins, going back to P.L. Travers, who wrote the book, Mary Poppins doesn't sugarcoat things. She tells you exactly how life is. I think that's kind of hard to swallow, but the way Mary Poppins delivers it, with 'a spoonful of sugar,' she can be very blunt."

"But ... the way Mary Poppins is, and the way the show's constructed, is that you don't love her any less," he added. "You want to learn from her; and you want to listen to her; and I think that's what's so important for the Banks family, is that they're drawn to this person."

With Renier and Barsoian in place, longtime Artpark director Randall Kramer at the helm, and Artpark & Company working behind the scenes, it's not hard to imagine audiences will be drawn to "Mary Poppins," too.

Look for our review next weekend.

For a list of "Mary Poppins" show times and dates, or to purchase tickets, visit www.artpark.net.

  

Artpark: Emilie Renier and John Barsoian preview 'Mary Poppins'

Q&A and photo by Joshua Maloni

Artpark & Company will present the popular Disney musical "Mary Poppins" July 31 through Aug. 8 inside the Mainstage Theater.

Leads Emilie Renier and John Barsoian met last weekend at The Orange Cat in Lewiston to drink coffee and preview the show.

Both Elon University-trained actors have performed at Artpark before, with Renier taking the lead in "Cinderella" (2012) and "The Sound of Music" (2013), and Barsoian a member of "The Sound of Music" ensemble.

"We're very, very lucky, because this is a great theater," Renier said. "And you don't, really, find theaters like this all the time."

You've both been here before. What do you think of Lewiston?

Emilie: I love Mangia. When we were staying at the Barton, I went every morning to Mangia. Like, they knew who I was; they knew my favorite food. It was a little embarrassing, but also wonderful.

I love Lewiston. (It's) one of my favorite places ever. I always say I'd come back here just to vacation. It feels like the small town where everybody knows each other. I love it. It's so cute. And the water's right there. We came down and ate at The Silo the other night. And, you know, there's a band playing; and everybody's happy; and the food is good; and the water is beautiful; and birds are chirping.

It's like this little piece of Heaven.

John: When we came down to start working at Artpark, we would always go to Mangia in the morning. We would get coffee here (at The Orange Cat). It reminds me - we used to have a cottage in Boothbay Harbor in Maine. And it's this really small town where everyone knows each other. And it reminds me a lot of that, where there's really no chain restaurant. It's all like ... family owned.

It makes you feel like you're a part of the community. You love that. You feel so much more grounded.

Emilie: I love that you can go into a place and, after a while, they know your favorite coffee or breakfast. I love that. The show "Gilmore Girls" - this town reminds me of that show.

John: It's just more intimate; it's more personal.

Emilie: I love it. I live in New York City now, so having this little piece of Heaven is really important, I think.

What do you do in between Artpark seasons? It sounds like a silly question, but so many people, they will have seen you (Emilie) three times in a row; they will see you (John) two times in a row. They probably don't know what you do in between Artpark seasons. What is your life like the rest of the year?

Emilie: This past year I've been on the national tour of "Beauty and the Beast." So my past year has been traveling, which has been amazing. But it's really nice to be in one place for four weeks!

It's opened my eyes. It's been national, so I've seen this whole country in nine months, which is incredible.

What an awful job I have! That I get to travel and do what I love and entertain people and get paid for it is pretty cool.

John: I'm still in school, so for the majority of the year I'm down in North Carolina (at Elon University).

John Barsoian and Emilie Renier in "Mary Poppins" at Artpark. 

How are you coming along with the show?

Emilie: It's been interesting. On paper, the show doesn't look as detailed and as big as it actually is. And so everybody's been like, "Oh, my gosh, this show is huge!" But it's great, and what I love about it is, usually, within a show, the majority of the show falls on the lead or the title character. But what I like about this is everybody in the ensemble, or any supporting characters, everybody does just as much as I do. And I love that, because I love seeing people dance.

It's that big Disney musical that everybody loves.

Act 1 has a handful of production numbers.

Emilie: It's wonderful; it's great. But it's been really hard this week, because it's a lot of choreography. But we have such a great team, and they cast really amazing people. It's come together and we're very excited.

Both Renier and Barsoian offered high praise for their castmates and for choreographer Anne Beck.

What should people expect from this show? Is it geared primarily for children? For families? What should our mindset be coming into this?

John: I guess just experience magic. It's really - the way I see it, it plays to every age, because the magic in it is so wonderful for children. Even for me, I still get so enthralled by the magic.

With "Mary Poppins" comes so many life lessons geared towards parents and children and families that it really speaks to everyone. And that's what's so wonderful about the show.

Emilie: What's great is that Randy (Kramer), our director, we were just talking about one of the scenes. Mr. Banks is in the bank, and the kids come in and there's this whole scene about whether he's going to give a chance to a good man or somebody who has a good idea. And is a good idea or a good man better?

And so we were talking about this, and talking about why Mary Poppins is there. ... And as we're talking about this, both of us are going, "Oh, wait, I could learn a lesson from this."

So it's fun, because we're also being reminded of these things.

It's a little darker. I think that's something to remember. It's much closer to the book.

It's very British - British humor. But it still has that same warmth and happiness and magic.

We're having fun. I get to snap my fingers and things happen a lot. He gets to do it every once in a while, and I'm always like, "You're stealing my thunder!"

So, we're having a lot of fun. How often do you get to snap your fingers and things appear? It's pretty cool.

And I get to fly. That's cool.

John: No big deal!

That's a pretty big part of this show.

Emilie: I've done "Peter Pan" before, and I've flown in that. It is, like simultaneously, one of the coolest experiences that you'll ever have, and it's also kind of terrifying, because, being the person being flown, you don't have a whole lot of control. It's really being controlled by the people off stage. But I think it's going to be so cool.

You can't do "Mary Poppins" without her flying.

How do you think you'll do singing and acting in the air?

Emilie: We'll see! I'm sure it will be great. That's what's great about Artpark is that every time I'm like "Ahhhh. Am I going to be able to do this?" They just make it possible. Between George and Randy and our choreographer, Anne, and (production manager) Susan Stimson, the most incredible stage manager you could ask for, things just magically happen.

They get it done. I'm sure it will be fun.

Emilie, this is your third iconic character in three years. What can you tell me about Mary Poppins?

Emilie: She's such a cool, cool, lady. Going into this, I didn't think I'd fall in love with her like I am, but Randy and I have talked a lot about her. I had this question of is she a real person? Is she magic? What is she? We decided she's a magical person who has human qualities. So, she does feel things for the children, but she's primarily there as somebody to teach lessons and bring this family back together - which happens every day in real life. Families fall apart and we go through troubles and hardships.

She's like that little bit of magic that somehow gets us through these problems. It's really cool.

It's also cool that this is the third Julie Andrews character that I've played. And what an amazing woman to be in the footsteps of.

It's fun to sing the songs - songs that we've grown up listening to and singing along with in the shower. It's really fun. And I get to work with one of my best friends. ... That doesn't happen all that often.

In December, I was at Artpark and they were talking about "Mary Poppins." Everybody there was like, "Emilie." What does that mean to you, to be the star of their show?

Emilie: It means the world. It really does.

The thing about theater is that you meet these people and you fall in love with the people. I have fallen in love with this town, and this company, and the people who run it. And I would follow them anywhere. And it means a lot that they have been so loyal.

It makes my job easier. When I know and care about these people so much, it makes me want to go the extra mile for them. And it doesn't happen that often - at least not in my experience yet - that people are this loyal. It is really, really special, and I could not thank them more. Truly.

They have given me three incredible roles. I didn't ever think I'd be able to play these roles back to back in one place. That's amazing. It blows my mind.

Who gets to play Mary Poppins - and then Cinderella two years before? It's crazy. I'm very, very lucky. I could not love them more and thank them more. It's amazing.

Tell me about Bert.

John: Bert is a wonderful person. The way I see Bert is he just wants to make everyone happy. He's there to put a smile on your face, even when you may think the world is collapsing.

That's what I love about him. He really just wants the world to be happy, and I think that's such a beautiful thing to have that in our life.

Tell me about the relationship between Bert and Mary Poppins.

John: Bert and Mary Poppins - it's a funny relationship, because P.L. Travers, who wrote the book, she doesn't want any romantic relationship between them at all. Even if you read her books, you kind of get a sense of that. They're just, like, these wonderful friends.

The musical, however ... there's a slight notion that there's something more. We've talked about it a lot, because, I guess in my mind, how can there not be, because I love this woman! (Both laugh.)

But, truly, Bert just, even in a non-romantic way, Bert just loves Mary Poppins for who she is. And their relationship is complicated, because she's not always there. But when she is, Bert is always there for her.

I love that. That's what I love about him: He'll always be there for you.

One of things I've written about you, Emilie, and that I've heard from others, is that you're very magnetic. What do you think is the key to being magnetic?

Emilie: I've always appreciated when I see performances and I recognize that, whoever's the lead, that they are the most giving person, and they let other people take the spot.

I think, as long as you're true and honest on stage, and you're listening and responding, and you're being true to the character, and you're not being selfish. ... I feel like people can tell when you're performing, and when it's about you - when you're performing and you're doing it to get the gratification of the people saying, "Congratulations; you were wonderful." I think those people are doing it for the wrong reason.

Keeping it in perspective and surrounding yourself with people who are going to keep you keeping it in perspective (helps). ... I don't know how to do it, really.

John: I think, for Emilie's case, a lot of it does have to do with just being a giving actress. It really, I think, comes down to just Emilie as a person. She's such a wonderful, loving person that, when you see her on stage, you're drawn to her. Because she just wants to make a connection with you. So, as an audience member, you feel like, "Oh, my God, she's singing to me. It's all to me." I think that really goes down to who she is as a person.

 

You've got some pretty high-profile songs. Is that exciting? A challenge? Nerve-wracking?

Emilie: It is a challenge, because Julie Andrews is so wonderful that you listen to it, and you're like, "Oh, that's easy." Then you go to sing it, and you're like, "Oh, man." But it's exciting.

When I saw this show, I want to say it was early high school/late middle school. I saw it on Broadway with Ashley Brown as Mary Poppins, who's one of my idols. I remember seeing it and being like, "I'm going to do this show one day." So, I've kind of always sung along to the soundtrack. I came into it being familiar with the songs already, but it is - it's a challenge. Because then you add the magic, and you add dancing and walking and talking. ...

John: Flying.

Emilie: Flying, and all this stuff on top of it. And, suddenly, you're like, "I can't think straight!" But it's fun. It's like a little puzzle that you kind of have to piece together.

But, of course, Bert has just as many iconic songs.

John: Yeah, and I think what's so successful about this show is, when it was created, they didn't try and just take the movie and put it into a show. They really looked at it again and thought, "How can we make this better? How can we change this and really make it more true to the books?" Which I really appreciate and love.

The way it's created, even some songs are a little out of order than the movie. The way it ends is a little different.

Emilie: Some of the characters have a little different spin.

John: The way the songs are arranged is just beautiful. ... But it is a challenge. You have these iconic songs, and you have to think, "How can I make these new and fresh on my own?" Because I don't want to go up there and try and be Dick Van Dyke. I mean, as much as you would love to be Julie Andrews. ...

Emilie: No one's Julie Andrews!

John: No one's Julie Andrews. It's a definitely a challenge, but I think that's what's so exciting is that it is a challenge, and that we want to take on that challenge.

Emilie: And that we're surrounded by people who won't let us go out there being less than our best, which is really wonderful.

What do you think the audience reaction to this show will be?

Emilie: "Mary Poppins" has all the things an audience wants. They have all those iconic songs. You have your magic. You have Mary Poppins snapping her fingers and things being restored.

John: It's definitely a story of redemption and finding happiness.

Emilie: It's important to realize that Mary Poppins isn't about Mary Poppins. It's about restoring faith - is the word that Randy keeps using - in your family, and remembering what's important in life.

For a list of "Mary Poppins" show times and dates, or to purchase tickets, visit www.artpark.net.