In the Battle of Family-Friendly Theatre, Annie Takes On Mary Poppins

Due to one of my husband's last-minute business trips, I had to scramble to exchange our opening night tickets to the touring performance of Disney's Mary Poppins, and the only performance for which somewhat comparable tickets were still available was for one of the final performances this past Friday night.  No one is going to be surprised to find out that I am a ticket snob, but especially since this was my first time taking the boys to a big, Broadway-style musical, I wanted to make it an extra-special experience for them.  This past weekend's performances were added to the original schedule for Charlotte, so I was able to get us seats in the second row of the Grand Tier circle.  However, I had also previously purchased tickets for Theatre Charlotte's performance of Annie for this Saturday night, so our family got an unintended double dose of back-to-back musical theatre this weekend, both classic family shows, but in two very different venues, and the difference between the Disney Mary Poppins budget and the community theatre's budget for their Annie production was like the difference between the defense budgets of the United States of America and Madagascar.

I have to tell you, I was disappointed by the Mary Poppins production.  With the vast resources of Disney at their disposal, along with a hefty box office take (my tickets cost $85 each, even for the kids) and a professional cast and crew, you would think that Mary Poppins would have been a far better show.  However, I felt commercially ambushed in that theatre, steamrolled with gimmicks and special effects that would have been more impressive had they contributed meaningfully to a production with genuine artistic merit.  The show's producers seemed unable to decide whether they were trying to rehash the hit 1964 Disney film, present something more faithful to P. L. Travers' original Mary Poppins books, or go Cirque de Soleil.  Major characters such as Burt, the Banks' household maid, and Mary Poppins herself were stale caricatures of the two-dimensional characters from the original Disney film, like photocopies of photocopies.  No one is going to do Julie Andrews better than Julie Adrews, or Dick Van Dyke better than Dick Van Dyke, so I would have preferred to see more original casting and interpretation in these roles.  Caroline Sheen's Mary Poppins came across a bit too harsh and self-absorbed, so that we really needed the "Holy Terror," Miss Andrews (she's the Evil Nanny who comes in and terrorizes the Banks family briefly when Mary goes MIA) as a contrast to show us what a great nanny Mary really is.  Choreographer Matthew Bourne's dance numbers are fabulous; just a bit confusing and out of place.  I'm as much in favor of well-muscled male ballet dancers in spandex as the next gal, but the statues that came to life in the park were more creepy than exciting, and Burt's dancing up the walls and ceiling was a gimicky, cheap thrill, not what I expect from a big-budget show.  If you missed Mary Poppins here in Charlotte, don't feel too bad -- you didn't miss anything you haven't seen a hundred times before.

Annie (Hannah Gundersheim) and Oliver Warbucks (Steve Bryan)
So on Saturday evening, we headed to a tiny little theatre in a converted house on Queens Road in Myers Park, where the all-volunteer cast and crew of Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre group, weaves magic out of next to nothing like Rumplestiltskin spins straw into gold. 

Ticket prices for Annie were $24 each, and that got us great seats in the second row.  The amateur performers (and by amateur I mean only that they were unpaid -- the cast was truly professional in every other sense) were accompanied by recorded instrumentals rather than by a live orchestra, and the sets and costumes were obviously a low or no-budget affair.  Yet the energy at Theatre Charlotte was electric, from the moment we entered the lobby until the last curtain call.  The child actors were fantastic, especially the little girl who plays Molly and Hannah Gundersheim as Annie.  Set Designer Chris Timmons and Costumer Jamie Varnadore did a fantastic job transporting us all to the Depression era.  I especially enjoyed the projected skyscrapers on the walls of the theatre, surrounding the audience and making us all feel that we were right in the thick of a bustling Manhattan thoroughfare for the "NYC" number. 

So, for all you Charlotteans out there, whether you have young children or not, I highly recommend that you make it a priority to see Annie before the show closes at the end of September, as well as any of the other upcoming Theatre Charlotte performances this season.  Even if you don't live in the Charlotte area, there's probably a community theatre in your neck of the woods, too.  Check them out!  It's a great way to support the arts at the grass roots level, and an affordable opportunity to enjoy live theatre. 

By the way, all you designers and drapery workrooms -- you know all those fabric scraps you've been hoarding that are too beautiful to throw away, but you really don't have any use for them?  Consider donating them to your local community theatre group!  If you have donations of gently worn vintage evening wear, suits, hats, gloves, sewing supplies, or fabrics that could be repurposed for costumes, contact Jamey Varnadore at (704) 840-5218, or send him an email to Jamey@varnadore.com

2 comments, opinions & scuttlebutt:

Beadboard UpCountry said...

Hi Rebecca!!!!!
I am so much a fan of your blog.....Now... I have time to check it out.... I totally agree with you sometimes local theatres do so much better than the Force feeding of the Disney machine..... And the performers really want to please their audience!!!!! Oh and I love what you did with that window treatment!!!!!!

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Maryanne -- that means a lot, coming from you! :-)

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