EPAC’s ‘Mary Poppins Jr.’ is a practically perfect production

By on February 6, 2019

Theatre is where imperfect people strive for perfection.

I jotted down this general observation during a moment of reflection unconnected to the subject at hand: the opening of “Mary Poppins Jr.” at EPAC. But, bear with me as I defend my inference and apply it to this review.

Theatre is where imperfect people strive for perfection, where players, fully aware of both their abilities and inabilities, push themselves and those around them to present a perfect character from the pages of a written script. Theatre is where art meets construction in a balance of juxtaposition. It is where fashion confronts necessity, where need outweighs capability, and where abilities are redefined. Theatre is where song meets dance, but not solely for the pleasure of those partaking in the act. All of this combines to create a delicate balance emanating from the many, with their imperfect nature, who strive to present perfection as a whole.

A practically perfect production of “Mary Poppins Jr.” entertained the audience Friday, Feb. 1 at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre as EPAC opened its 2019 season with the Kids4Kids production featuring approximately 60 children ages 6 through 16.

The show opens with a minimalist set bathed in blue, which is quickly filled with smiling faces as Bert (Adam Smith), a jack-of-all-trades and part narrator, sets the stage for the tale taking place at Cherry Tree Lane, London (based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the 1964 Walt Disney Film).

The home at Cherry Tree Lane is residence to George (Brett Devlin) and Winnifred Banks (Katelyn Pilsner) and their two children, Jane (Keturah Jackson) and Michael (Noah Woods)*.

We immediately learn the home is expected to run in an orderly fashion without distractions from children. After the children detail “The Perfect Nanny,” we are introduced to the mysterious and “Practically Perfect” Mary Poppins (Amelia Ritrievi) who leads the children on imaginative journeys in “Jolly Holiday,” a crowd-pleasing, honey bee-filled “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and a colorfully amazing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” In-between the merriment we learn of George’s harsh upbringing at the hands of Miss Andrews (Clara Mecouch) and a new dilemma which may cost the Banks’ their home.

One of the more pivotal moral defining moments comes in the first act through the story of the Bird Woman (Kayla Ketchum) as viewers are asked to “Feed the Birds” and care for the little ones in life. Ketchum’s voice is angelic and sweet and makes the musical number one of the most heartfelt and touching parts of the show. Tearing up is easy.

After an intermission, Act 2 resolves the story with notable numbers like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and a handful of reprises. The Banks house is whole and loving as Mary Poppins departs.

It is easy to heap accolades on a lead actress, but Ritrievi is absolutely astounding. From her manner of walk to her subtle accent, Ritrievi encapsulates the character many have come to love in books and on the silver screen. Most of the time, I forgot she was a kid playing an adult role. Hers was a truly stellar performance in a star-driven production. Devlin also showed range above his age as he settled into a character who is both complex and secondary to the action. I also specifically enjoyed the delivery by Woods as I became a fan of his character quickly.

Amelia Ritrievi plays the title role in EPAC’s “Mary Poppins Jr.” Reviewer Michael Upton calls her “absolutely astounding.” (Image from Facebook)

Kudos to director Irving Gonzalez to not only lead this large troupe of children, but to employee perfect blocking as seen in numbers like “Practically Perfect,” incorporate special effects for Mary Poppins, and fully utilize the talents of his wonder team (Music Director JP Welliver, Stage Manager Jamie Latshaw, Choreographer Kristin Pontz) in a show he kindheartedly described as “challenging” and “a test of patience” during his opening speech. Hats off — “Jolly Holiday” hats off — to the rest of the cast: Niamh Cushey as Mrs. Corry; Abby Jackson as Miss Brill; Hunter Smith as Robertson Ay; Todd Becker as Neleus; Carson Smith as Policeman; Halligan Upton as Miss Smythe; Peter Smith as Northbrook; Sanjay Samuel as the Chairman; Jacob Huntington as Von Hussler; Emerson Trobaugh as the Messenger; and the entire ensemble.

With any large show it is important to note the efforts of the costumer (Carolyn Smith) and crew. “Mary Poppins Jr.” had an uncountable number of costume changes, with many mini-thespians ducking out as soot covered chimney sweeps only to reappear as cleaned up ensemble members a few numbers later.

Despite any opening night jitters the show is nearly perfect; it is Mary Poppins herself who claims to be “practically perfect.”

Theatre is where imperfect people strive for perfection. Aren’t we all imperfect in our own little ways? Our imperfections make us unique, provide our individuality, give us the one thing that sets us apart from all the rest, thus making us a crucial part to any assemblage — in this case, of players on the stage and help behind the curtain. Despite every actor being under the age of 17, Kids4Kids is a little misleading in the case of “Mary Poppins Jr.”; although the story is a tale for children, it speaks to adults as well … if not more in some instances.

*During select performances the roles of Jane and Michael will be played by Abbie Lesher and Alex Holler.

There are many showings left before “Mary Poppins Jr.” wraps on Feb. 17. Purchase tickets at ephrataperformingartscenter.com.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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