With all due respect to my parents, I may have been a deprived child because I never saw the Disney film “Mary Poppins,” nor did I read the P.L. Travers stories that the film was based on.
So when I attended the opening of the musical “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson Theatre last Friday, I had no knowledge of the storyline beforehand. Naturally, I knew many of the songs because they’ve penetrated popular culture. “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” … come on, admit it, you’re humming along as you read these titles.
Well, there is just one thing to say about the current touring production of “Mary Poppins”— go!
This is a stage work that I would never even consider reviewing. Why? Because when something so pure and joyous washes over you, you simply have to give yourself over, count your blessings and appreciate it as the gift it is.
The singing is beautiful and the staging is wondrous, from the fold-out dollhouse set of the Banks family’s London home “sometime at the turn of the last century” to the fantastical park that comes to life in Technicolor neon pastels so fast you don’t know how the change occurred before your very eyes.
You will love Mary (Rachel Marshall) and even if you were a stalwart fan of Dick Van Dyke as Bert, Nicolas Dromard will utterly charm you. Statues and dolls come alive, kites are flown, lives are transformed and yes, Mary Poppins is carried away on the wind with her umbrella.
The children in the audience were all incredibly excited but well-behaved, some singing along gently, and kids and adults alike clapped along with the music throughout.
It’s a rare treat that will please the entire family, no matter how young or old. “Mary Poppins” is at The Ahmanson Theatre, but only through Sept. 2. Visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-2772.
Rothko and Red
On the more cerebral side of the music center is the Donmar Warehouse Production of “Red” at the Mark Taper Forum, the critically-acclaimed play about artist Mark Rothko, which opened on Sunday.
Rothko was an abstract artist of the “New York School,” a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, renowned for large canvases with rectangular shapes floating in deeply-layered, subtle shades of contrasting colors.
Contemplated long enough they begin to pulsate, a word that frequently arises in the script by John Logan. Pulsating with his own energy, respected actor and Tony nominee for this role, Alfred Molina embodies the warring instincts within Rothko.
Rothko was a reader of Nietzsche, who wrote about opposing dualities, the rational and the emotional, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, radiance and darkness, all of which we both hear about and see onstage.
Rothko is working on a mural he’s been commissioned to do for the luxe Four Seasons restaurant, housed inside New York’s Seagram’s Building, then a new temple to modernism by two towering architectural giants of the 20th century — Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.
Rothko is an artist of purist intentions who nevertheless accepts a large fee to have his work serve as an “overmantle” — as he sneeringly calls paintings selected to hang over a mantle or couch — in this house of commercial consumerism and power players. In a word, he’s conflicted.
He hires an assistant, played by Jonathan Groff, who at first accedes to and later challenges Rothko’s irresolvable paradoxes. There’s an explosive scene where they paint the undercoat of a giant canvas in red onstage and come out looking like they’ve bloodied themselves.
It’s the perfect metaphor for the verbal battle scenes that ultimately bring Rothko to conclude he must give up the commission, and that’s not a spoiler. Not covered in the play, much later in his life Rothko committed suicide.
“Red” is at the Mark Taper forum until Sept. 9. Visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/Red orcall (213) 628-2772.
Tennis court Shakespeare
It was quite a revelation to discover that we have, right here in Santa Monica’s midst, a company working with both aspiring and professional actors “to educate and enrich through the medium of Shakespeare.” That quote comes from the mission statement of the aptly named Shakespeare Santa Monica.
Now in its ninth year, the company brings in top flight speech and acting coaches, as well as instructors in the art of movement and other techniques, for an immersion in Shakespeare, resulting in both free and affordable public performances of select Shakespearean plays at the end of their training.
This summer, we have “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “The Taming of the Shrew” both unfolding on a tennis court at Christine Emerson Reed Park as the stage, with the audience watching from the grandstand bleachers.
Last Saturday, without scenery or props and very little by way of costuming, with just a little “willing suspension of disbelief,” that tennis court became the courts of Florence and France for “All’s Well That Ends Well,” considered one of the Bard’s problem plays because it’s neither comedy nor tragedy. While you might think that playing Shakespeare on a tennis court poses a “problem,” in the capable hands of this enterprising group it’s both an inventive setting and an entertaining production.
John Farmanesh-Bocca, company director, definitely takes it in the direction of the comic, and it’s a lightning fast 90 minutes long, streamlining some of the denser elements and keeping the plot clear and easy to follow. There are a lot of laughs and you even get a chance to throw tennis balls at the French army!
Tonight Shakespeare Santa Monica premieres “The Taming of the Shrew” with four performances only, alternating with three remaining performances through Aug. 25 of “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Dates, tickets and times here: www.jfbnyla.com/shakespearesantamonica/purchasetickets.html
Have a ball —and toss it!
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.