By Pat Launer

Whether you like your musicals dark, light, nerdy or battle-scarred, there’s a show in San Diego for you. Music is filling the air, and audiences are filling the seats… for “Mary Poppins,” “The Full Monty,” “Geeks! The Musical” and “Les Misérables.” It’s a veritable cornucopia of tuneful riches.

Mary Poppins

The most magical of the quartet of shows (in the technical/theatrical sense) is “Mary Poppins,” the long-running Broadway musical (based on the stories of Pamela Travers and the beloved 1964 Disney film), which is making its Southern California regional premiere under the stars at Moonlight Amphitheatre. And what a total delight it is.

There’s a hint of darkness between the supercolorful, “Supercalifragilistic” proceedings. In the musical’s book by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey” fame), not only the disobedient children have something to learn; their distant and disconnected parents take a journey, too. All thanks to that greatest, most airborne, of all governesses, Mary Poppins, who seems to float in precisely where and when she’s most needed.

So, the rambunctious tots (deliciously played by two talented 10-year olds: irresistible Abbie DeSpain and adorable Nate Carman) develop open minds while their folks acquire more open hearts, and realize that they don’t need to farm the kids out. They can spend time and fly kites with the offspring on their own.

Director/choreographer John Vaughan has done a splendid job in casting and staging. It’s all there: the flying nanny (gorgeous-voiced Jessica Bernard), the wall-and-ceiling-walking chimney sweep Bert (charming, fleet-footed Leigh Wakeford) and the terrific dance numbers (especially “Step in Time” and “Supercalifragilistic”). The tapping is superb; the dancers, nonpareil. The ever-changing sets (from Music Theatre Wichita) and costumes (from Tuachan Center for the Arts) are eye-popping. The singing is marvelous, the characters well defined. Lovely to have Moonlight artistic director Steve Glaudini back onstage (after a 10-year hiatus), and especially fun that he’s playing opposite his real-life wife, Bets Malone (in her most subtle performance to date) as the Banks parents.

The music is wonderfully played by an excellent 16-piece orchestra, under the baton of musical director Kenneth Gammie (with Randi Rudolph as co-musical-director). The lighting (Paul Canaletti, Jr.) and sound (Bryon Andersen) are crystalline.

The only weak spot is one of the new songs (additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, tacked onto the original, memorable score by the brothers Sherman, Richard and Robert). Though “Anything Can Happen” (If You Let It) is the theme of the musical, it doesn’t serve as the most exhilarating finale. But the more energetic songs inevitably follow during the curtain calls, so all’s right with the world.

 The Full Monty

Things are not so right in the world of “The Full Monty.” Riffing on the 1997 film set in Sheffield, England, the 2000 musical, that premiered at the Old Globe, moved the action to Buffalo, NY. The Broadway production garnered 10 Tony Award nominations.

The steel mill has shut down and the out-of-work men are desperate; they feel like “scrap.” One guy hatches a plan for some quick money: a strip show à la Chippendales. They’re not handsome or hunky, but six brave souls bare it all (going ‘the full monty’ – really!) so that hapless Jerry (excellent Grant Rosen) can regain joint custody of his son, and his best bud Dave (funny Michael Parrott) and the rest of the guys can reclaim their self-respect.

Under the assured direction of Manny Fernandes (usually an onstage presence at New Village Arts and elsewhere), each member of the ensemble carves out a sharp character with personal problems to overcome. The wives (headed by the dynamic singing duo of Melissa Fernandes and Debra Wanger) are depressed, skeptical and ultimately supportive. There’s a lot of humor here, the comic centerpiece being Myra McWethy as the accompanist, world-weary, showbiz veteran, Jeannette. Hilarious.

The score is pre-recorded (but crisply presented by sound designer Garrett Wysocki), the singing is fabulous (expert musical direction by Justin Gray), and Michael Mizerany’s choreography is ebullient. The lighting (Luke Olson) and costumes (Valerie Henderson) perk up the already sparkling proceedings.

In theme, titillation, character, music and humor, this show (book by Terrence McNally, music and lyrics by David Yazbeck) is audience catnip. Hurry, before the whole run is sold out!

Les Misérables

Can you hear the people sing? The voices are so robust in the Lamb’s Players Theatre production of the beloved (if emotionally overwrought) musical, “Les Misérables,” they could reverberate around the county. Need I reiterate that nearly every song is an anthem, and there are three (count ‘em!) deathbed ballads? The overblown musical focuses on one teeny tiny moment of French history: a popular revolt in the early 19th century. But it’s captured the souls and minds (and ear-wormed hearts) of the world. Now, Lamb’s Players Theatre takes on this behemoth and really makes it sing.

The Jean Valjean/Javert confrontation is not only a personal vendetta (all he did was steal a loaf of bread; is that really worth a lifetime pursuit?); it’s a vocal cage-match. Brandon Joel Maier’s Valjean is a tortured man turned saint. And he has the voice of an angel, especially in that punishingly high plea, “Bring Him Home.” Randall Dodge brings his beautiful baritone to the role of Javert, and he has all the requisite bile and relentlessness. They’re fantastic counterparts. Christopher Lesson has a mellifluous voice as the Bishop who changes Valjean’s path in life.  And as Enjolras, the leader of the students, Jordan Miller is a standout.

Not so shabby on the distaff side either (except for some of the intentionally ragged and wildly creative costumes by Jeanne Barnes Reith). Charlene Koepf brings her stunning soprano to Cosette, and Jesse Abeel is vigorous and convincing as her beloved, Marius. Allie Trimm (young San Diegan who’s already a Broadway veteran) is heart-rending as Eponine, though her part is weakened considerably without her backstory, and a young ‘ponine. Kelsey Venter is excellent as Fantine, though both characters looked hale and hearty as they died.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth is predictably exceptional as the bawdy Madame Thenardier. But as her husband, Neil Dale affected such a heavy cockney accent (in France??) that nearly everything he said or sang was unintelligible. That took a big bite out of the comic show-stopper, “Master of the House,” which boasts some of the most clever lyrics in the show (original French lyrics by Alain Boublil, with English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer; Claude-Michel Schönberg composed the music).

The two tykes in the show (Hourie Klijian as Young Cosette and Scotty Atienza as Garvroche) are cute and talented, but both could use assistance with their articulation.

Musical director G. Scott Lacy has done a masterful job; the robust 9-piece orchestra is nicely hidden among the piled-up ‘barricade’ of chairs, tables and headboards of Mike Buckley’s set. The lighting (Nathan Peirson)  is superb. Robert Smyth’s direction makes inventive use of the limited space to tell this epic tale. The coup de théâtre (Javert’s self-destruction) is wonderfully conceived. Carlos Mendoza’s dance choreography and Jordan Miller’s fight choreography add to the mix.

In sum, this is a Lamb’s  production for the history books – ambitious, extravagant, and extremely successful.

Geeks! The Musical

And now, from the sublime (in some folks’ estimation) to the ridiculous. “Geeks! The Musical,” as the name would suggest, urges you to get your geek on. Okay, true confession, I knew I’d have no idea what this show was about. So I brought my resident geek (self-professed, card-carrying), my husband John. Though he wasn’t at Comic-Con the weekend we saw the musical, he confessed to knowing every character in it: the comic book fanatic; the Doctor Who obsessive; the Goth girl; the Snarky Skeptic; the marginally talented comic creator; the sci-fi has-been actor. They’re all there, in all their glory (inventive costumes by Mary Summerday).

The action (such as it is) takes place during Comic-Con. The quests for obscure memorabilia are a little creepy for the likes of me… but then, so are many geeks (except for the one I married, of course). The show, which has played in New York and L.A., has most appeal to this niche/nerd audience. The music (Ruth Judkowitz) is nice but not memorable; the book and lyrics (Thomas J. Misuraca) range from clever to cringe-worthy (“Ill search all the bins/ I’ll get down on my shins”… really? Are “eclectic” and “rejected” supposed to rhyme? How about “fear” and “there”?).

Though the game cast has some impressive credentials, the voices are variable. Sarah LeClair as Kerry is most impressive (though not, alas, with the pre-recorded accompaniment). Ed Hollingsworth is up for anything (including a unitard!) as the moth-eaten actor, and James P. Darvas hits a sweet spot as the funny (if stereotypical) gay cynic.

There’s a (possibly intentional) whiff of the amateur throughout, in acting, singing and directing (first-timers Patrick Gates and Lizzie Morse).

Overall, I guess I just couldn’t relate to this musical. But hey, maybe you can. Nerds unite!


MARY POPPINS

  • Runs through Aug. 2 at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park, Vista
  • Performances are Wednesday-Sunday at 8 p.m., through Aug. 2
  • Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
  • Tickets ($15-$52) are at 760-724-2110 or online at www.moonlightstage.com

THE FULL MONTY

  • Plays through Sept. 7 at New Village Arts,
  • Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., through Sept.  7
  • Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
  • Tickets ($15-$52) are at 760-433-3245 or online at www.newvillagearts.org

“LES MISÉRABLES”

  • Continues through Sept. 7 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave, Coronado
  • Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 p.m.;  Saturday  4 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., EXTENDED through Sept. 7
  • Running Time: 2 hours, 55 minutes
  • Tickets ($16-$72) are at 619-437-6000 or online at www.lambsplayers.org

“GEEKS! THE MUSICAL”

  • Psi Phi Productions at ion’s Blkbox Theatre, 3704 6th Ave., on the edge of Hillcrest
  • Performances are Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., through Aug. 16
  • Running Time: 95 minutes
  • Tickets ($15-$25) are at www.geeksthemusical.com

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.

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