Stage Review: 'Mary Poppins' makes trip to Broadway in lavish style

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Joan Marcus
Alexander Scheitinger takes his medicine from Ashley Brown in "Mary Poppins" on Broadway.

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NEW YORK -- Thanks to the 1964 movie, "Mary Poppins" is the kind of musical where you find yourself humming the songs on the way into the theater, then greet their teasing quotation in the overture as a guarantee of musical comedy pleasure to come.

   
'Mary Poppins'

Where: New Amsterdam Theater, 42nd and Seventh in New York.

Tickets: 1-800-755-4000 or www.marypoppins.com.

   

That guarantee is as good as gold. This stage version, already a hit in London, arrived on Broadway last night in a production both lavish and loving, never content just to refer us back to the movie but determined to whip up a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious entertainment of its own. And yes, that is a word: My spell check recognizes it.

The translation of whimsical family-friendly movies to the stage isn't guaranteed success -- look at the recent "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" to see how it can go heavy-handedly wrong. And "Mary Poppins" is not only a British musical, which raises fears of pop operatic sludge, but also a product of Disney, which threatens performers limited to imitating animations.

But the British heritage here is an older one, that of "Me and My Girl," "Peter Pan," charm, insouciance and the music hall. And here the Disney empire on which the sun never sets is on its best creative behavior. This is the good Disney, which hires original artists (compare Julie Taymor) and gives them the resources to do their job.

The key is obviously British producer Cameron Mackintosh, who does know a thing or two about pop opera but also loves the traditional material on which he grew up. And what resources he and Disney have enlisted! "Mary Poppins" is a design extravaganza, with its centerpiece a four-level Edwardian home of loving detail that rises and falls at will, and a supporting array of prettily-painted external scenes. There's flight-assisted acrobatics for Bert and a climactic flying exit for Mary Poppins that had the audience roaring its delight.

And yet Mackintosh and company have taken care to populate this set with actual people, in the persons of the troubled Banks family, without whose substance the magical nanny and chimney sweep would be pyrotechnics empty of feeling.

Just as a director's most important function is casting, so a producer must hire the right creative team, and Mackintosh has the gilt-edged British trio of Bob Crowley, Matthew Bourne and Richard Eyre. Designer Crowley engineers and decorates those sets and, in the British tradition, dresses them with a fantastical array of costumes, too. Choreographer and co-director Bourne, whose New Adventures company has turned classic ballet into edgy, pop-savvy entertainment, provides the wit that lifts most of the big production numbers. And Eyre, master of Shakespeare and (formerly) the National Theatre, grounds the Banks family in a reality that gives fantasy meaning.

The book is by Julian Fellows, based on the stories of P.L. Travers (1899-1996) and the Disney movie, but with plenty of differences. The score combines the movie songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman with new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, composers of the charming "Honk!" None of their songs is the immediate equal of the Shermans', but "Practically Perfect" comes close.

I suppose most people will go into the show already humming the story, too: Mary Poppins arrives magically to take the dysfunctional Banks family in hand. The two kids get the brunt of the blame and have the bejeebers scared out of them by grotesque toys in a "Temper, Temper" number straight out of the "Shockheaded Peter" tradition. But clearly the dysfunction originates in Mr. Banks and the holy terror nanny of his emotionally barren childhood.

"Mary Poppins" is really about the liberation of a middle-aged man, but he is approached through his wife, children and domestic staff. The agent of change is the magical nanny, who enlists plenty of others in the large servant class that supported the empire. Her private life remains as mysterious (hints about a relationship with Bert notwithstanding) as any nun's. But she can talk to animals (that's basic) and bring supposedly inanimate objects like statues or toys to instructive life.

Ultimately, she lessens the terrors of youth and, with her spoonful of sugar and invocation of the stars, defeats the old doctrine of brimstone and treacle. Inevitably, Mr. Banks' rosebud turns out to be the gingerbread stars he lost in his youth.

The musical's only drawback is its abundance. At 2 2/3 hours it feels a couple of production numbers too long, especially in Act 1. I'm not sure that the park fantasy pays its way, and Mrs. Corry feels like an extraneous remnant of some other story (maybe that's why her accent wavers between West Indian and Irish).

But Mrs. Corry's funfare does lead into the "Supercali-etc." number, the high point of Act 1. And Act 2 steps up the pace, first with the arrival of the villainous anti-Mary nanny, then with the welcome simplicity of the kite-flying scene. The killer number here is the chimney sweeps' "Step in Time," and I love the pearly lamplighters.

Ashley Brown is a skillful, starchy Mary with a lovely voice, but she does feel rather like her own younger sister, lacking an extra degree of eccentricity or tartness. Call it one spoonful of sugar too many. Gavin Lee's Bert has an angular charm right in the Ray Bolger-Dick Van Dyke tradition.

In the London performance I saw, Mr. Banks had a hang-dog exaggeration more like a Mr. Darling, so I applaud the comparative reticence of Daniel Jenkins, who puts Mr. Banks' rejuvenation at the show's emotional center. Rebecca Luker doesn't have that much to do as Mrs. Banks, but does it with warmth and such spunk as the adaptation has left her. The two kids I saw (performers alternate) are pros.

The moral? Well, if you're of the nanny-using class, find one who features herself an agent of magical change and knows that her true business is to make herself unnecessary. For the rest of us, don't miss a chance to dance with your wife and your kids.


Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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