Entertainment Local

Theatre Under the Stars features a pair of favourites

By Brian Paterson

There are endless treasures scattered through Stanley Park’s 1,000 acres: from meandering paths and secret ponds to beloved attractions like the miniature train and Vancouver Aquarium.

The crown jewel, however, must surely the Malkin Bowl: an 80-year old venue that offers audiences the quintessentially Vancouver experience of watching concerts, plays, and performances surrounded by towering, old growth Douglas firs.

Amidst these giants, it is an annual tradition for Theatre Under the Stars to fill summer nights with joyful song and dance. From now until Aug. 19, the company will take to the stage seven nights a week with an alternating pair of musical theatre favourites.

Mary Poppins

Starting the season is a fresh spin on an all-time classic. Mary Poppins first made the leap to the stage back in 2004, where it quickly became a West End – and later Broadway – hit.

“[The stage version] is even more magical than the film – and in some ways richer,” I was told by director Shel Piercy, who was also the creative mind behind last summer’s Beauty and the Beast. For Piercy to lavish such praise on the stage play is especially significant, given his relationship with the beloved 1964 film.

“It was the first movie I truly fell in love with when I was a kid,” he reminisced. “I never have lost the magic of the story. It set up a lifelong love of musical theatre.”

Piercy hinted at theatrical pyrotechnics and flight effects conjuring magic in his vision of the show, as well as a special contribution from the venue itself.

“It’s a wonderful story when you read it in a book or watch it on a screen – but it’s truly extraordinary when you see it under the stars, because they are what Mary Poppins teaches us to reach for,” Piercy offered. “’Reach for the stars’ are the very words she uses when encouraging us to try a little harder and achieve a little bit more. How much more perfect could it be than to do it at the Malkin Bowl?”

The Drowsy Chaperone

To complement Mary Poppins’ spoonfuls of sugar, The Drowsy Chaperone arrives with helpings of hooch. The wickedly witty Canadian creation is a relatively recent work (it hit Broadway in 2006), which pays loving tribute to jazz age musicals.

“TUTS has a mandate of choosing contrasting shows for their audiences,” explained Drowsy Chaperone director Gillian Barber. “Mary Poppins is a wonderfully traditional family show ... [whereas] ‘Drowsy’ is more adult fare: slightly titillating, but with a more psychological journey for its leading character.”

To tell its saucy tale, The Drowsy Chaperone uses a simple, but brilliant ‘musical-within-a play’ framing device: our lonely protagonist, known only as the ‘Man in a Chair’ puts on his favourite cast recording. As the record spins, the musical’s cast of flapper girls, gangsters, and lotharios spring to vibrant life in his apartment (accompanied by colourful & clever commentary from the Man, himself).

“I love musicals that have many layers to them; not just happy, glitzy shows, but those with depth,” Barber continued. ”There is a wonderfully glamorous 20s feel to the ‘musical inside the play’, but the overarching work, which is Man in Chair's story, has a melancholic thread.”

By not shying away from these sadder elements, The Drowsy Chaperone ultimately becomes a shining example of one of musical theatre’s great purposes.

“Ultimately, the show has a happy ending [and] the Man is released from his sad state,” Barber reflects. “That’s what I feel musicals do. They lift us out of our day-to-day rut, give us a tune to carry in our head, and transport us into another world. This show does all of that and more.”

Theatre Under the Stars runs July 7 to Aug. 19 at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Info at tuts.ca