By Jeffrey Genung, Correspondent
Photo by Frank Speziale
There aren’t many things that could lure me out of “retirement” and back on to the pages of The Evening Sun, but one of those is happening this weekend – Mark Sands’ final production on the Norwich High School stage. Thank you, dear readers, for allowing me to dust off the cobwebs this week and write about something other than yogurt for a change.
I first met Mark at NHS when I was a fledgling reporter myself, over two decades ago. Being the only one on the ES staff at the time who knew how to spell “proscenium,” I found myself tagged as the “arts guy” pretty early on. The show, though my memory could certainly be faulty by this point, was “The Wizard of Oz.” And though I’ve seen countless (seriously, I don’t want to count them) high school drama and musical productions all over the county in the ensuing years, Norwich’s always stood above the rest – due largely, I dare say, to the talent, dedication and perhaps touch of insanity that Mark brings to bear on the stage every spring.
From “Hello, Dolly!” to “West Side Story” to “Les Miserables” and a dozen or so others, Sands has used NHS’s spring musicals to hone the talents of hundreds of Tornado thespians, helping them perfect their craft and apply skills that I’m sure served them well in later years, whether they went on to pursue the arts or not. And that’s not to mention the literally thousands of theater-goers he’s kept entertained, and in many cases spellbound, show after show.
As I sat in the auditorium watching Wednesday’s night dress rehearsal for “Mary Poppins,” this weekend’s show, I tried to recall my favorite moments from everything I’d witnessed on the NHS stage since the 90s, the sum of which literally has filled pages in this newspaper. I can only imagine what it must be like for Mr. Sands to conjure those memories as he approaches the curtain call for this, his last production as director for the school’s musical club.
“Going out with a bang” is a tired cliché, but apt nonetheless in describing what’s in store for you all this weekend with “Mary Poppins.” In a licensing coup similar to the one he pulled off for “Phantom of the Opera” a few years ago, Sands has secured Norwich a spot among the very first in the nation to produce this stage musical version of “Poppins,” which only recently ended a successful Broadway run.
Like most of you, my only exposure to “Mary Poppins” has been the 1964 Disney movie version, starring the inimitable Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. If anyone is up to the challenge of filling their iconic shoes, it’s Kaitlyn Jackson and Ryan DeTomi, the Norwich thesps embodying the roles this weekend.
Kaitlyn Jackson is fairly ubiquitous on the local arts scene, so much so that when she told me in her interview that she’s only a junior, I was shocked. For the many times this paper has featured her, I figured her well into her 30s by now! That’s a testament not only to her longevity as an artist (she’s been at this since pretty much since she could walk), but also to her maturity and gravitas as a performer. As the “practically perfect” uber-nanny Mary Poppins, Jackson brings an air of sophistication and more than a touch of ethereal whimsy to the time-honored role. She commands attention in every scene – and while she doesn’t need to be suspended high above the stage on seemingly spare wires to do it, it sure doesn’t hurt! The flying stunts in “Poppins” are truly a sight to see – and another first for the NHS stage, thanks to Sands.
Matching Jackson step-for-step is her scene partner (and often scene-stealer) Ryan DeTomi as Bert, the loveable chimney sweep who serves as our narrator and Mary’s best friend. DeTomi’s got an equally undeniable magnetism on stage, and his reprisals of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” give the show both a narrative bookend and sometimes haunting earworm.
One thing that always amazes me about high school musical productions is the depth of talent displayed across such a wide age range – here from 6th grade to seniors. It’s always fun, and easy, to pick out the future stars among the younger performers, and this weekend they’re unquestionably the unruly Banks children, played to perfection here by 7th graders Aria Maholchic and Robert Brown. The pair are perfectly matched in precociousness and intensity, and share that one quality that makes the true stars always shine out – fearlessness.
Playing emotionally-stunted Victorians could easily fall into parody, but Shane Reynolds and Cassandra Corey avoid that trap by imbuing Mr. and Mrs. Banks with a healthy dose of emotional honesty. Another pair that works splendidly? Sophia Hutchens and Jon Quillen as the beleaguered household staff serving the Banks family. Every show needs comic relief, and these two provide it in spades.
I’m guessing between the number of kids in this show, the sentimentality of it being Mr. Sands’ swan song and the usual support that Norwich shows for the arts, most of you have tickets to see “Mary Poppins” already. If you don’t, I suggest you move quickly or get there early – I have a feeling this one might be SRO, as they say – and deservedly so.
I tried desperately to work “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into the review here, but like I said, my skills are rusty. I’m throwing it out here to remind you of the fantastic musical numbers that abound in this show – complete with the Broadway choreography. Add to that list “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds,” “Jolly Holiday” and a host of others (but let’s face it, nothing beats “Supercal …” for sheer fun) and you’ve got one heck of a show for audiences both young and old. I’ve said this probably 20 times before, but you really don’t want to miss it!
Show times for “Mary Poppins” are at 7:30 Friday and Saturday nights and 2:30 on Sunday. Tickets are $5, available at all Norwich schools, Service Pharmacy, and at the door.