It’s different from the wonderful 1964 musical film and even somewhat changed from the original 2004 West End theater production, which in turn differed from the movie. But the traveling edition of Disney’s musical stage extravaganza Mary Poppins, now running at the Kennedy Center Opera House, still has that same old magic: eye- popping visuals, toe-tapping tunes, and fabulous, colorful production numbers that make you wish the curtain would never come down.
If you don’t often take the kids to the theater, or would like to get them started, you can’t find a better intro than this. I may be a bit of a partisan, but there’s still nothing like live theater. And Mary Poppins is an awfully good way for the youngsters to fall in love with the real deal for good.
Disney’s film “Mary Poppins”, based on a series of books by author P. L. Travers, was an instant classic when it hit the silver screen. It launched the brilliant film career of the luminous Julie Andrews, and surprised everyone by unveiling TV’s Dick Van Dyke as a super-serious talent, even though his Cockney accent was lousy. Even a jaded teenage guy like me ultimately had to succumb to this wondrous display of Disney magic and charm even though I initially resisted attending the film with my family. Absolutely EVERYONE saw this film.
Which gets us back to Mary Poppins, the musical. Old fans of the film will recognize its plot outline and most of its unforgettable tunes like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Jolly Holiday,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” But the show has subtly and cleverly evolved, perhaps to more closely match attitudes and incidents that hit closer to our own times.
As movie fans will remember, Mary glides into the lives of Mr. and Mrs. George Banks, parents to bratty Jane and Michael who routinely drive successive nannies from the house. George is a banker and wife Winifred is a suffragette, apparently by trade. In the course of the film, aided and abetted by Jack-of-all-trades, Bert, the Banks children learn how to behave like little human beings and George learns that kids need attention from their parents more than anything else in the world.
This basic plot remains in the current show. But, perhaps due to today’s more cynical and audiences and their expectations, numerous tweaks have been made to the original product. In the main, this sort of tinkering with a classic tends to irritate me. But in this case, I don’t think the updates do any violence to the uplifting spirit of the original.
Major ones: Mrs. B is no longer a suffragette. (Much to the chagrin of my esteemed spouse Fran who was looking forward to the “Suffragette Song” she used to love.) She’s now a former actress and neglected spouse looking for a bit of love and respect herself. And in a pinch, she’ll stand right up and defend her husband George, even before his dreaded boss.
Perhaps being an Edwardian era suffragette was still relevant in the 1960s for the Betty Friedan generation. But it’s pretty clear that most of that battle has been won and may no longer seem relevant to today’s young adults and tweeners. In any event that material is gone.
The bankers who decide to fire George when visiting son Michael inadvertently causes a run on the bank? Well, George is still in trouble after a visit to the bank by Mary and the kids. But now it’s because, after hearing one of Mary’s pearls of wisdom, he turns down a rich German client for a loan and gives one to a small factory operator so he can keep his men employed, infuriating the boss who promptly suspends him.
One of the hallmarks of any genuine Disney production, be it film or show, is that, while it often addresses children in order to delight and instruct, it also presents unpleasant or uncomfortably dark moments, like classic Grimm Fairy Tales. Kids still like the sweet stuff, but they know that evil things also lurk out there. In this case, in the film as well as the show, the Banks kids learn that dad might lose his job and they might all lose the house and go hungry. And suddenly, being a selfish little kid stops being a bright idea. It’s how life works. And sadly, it’s relevant once again as the effects of the Great Recession grind on.
All this having been said, it’s probably only serious theater wonks like this one who will dig into this kind of stuff first and foremost. Most folks will still attend Mary Poppins for the music and the fun, and trust me—they won’t be disappointed.
The old hit songs are still there, although a few (like the suffragette number) have gone away, replaced by some new musical material that’s actually pretty good, although not quite as inspired. The dance numbers are swell, the choreography is stunning, and the set changes just don’t quit. Mary flies through the air quite nicely which will elicit oohs and ahhs from the little ones. And Bert’s 360-degree tap dance number—reminiscent of an old Fred Astaire movie classic—will please adults and kids alike.
Also, like old Disney classics, Mary Poppins provides an uplifting moral tone that gives today’s harried nuclear families, young and old alike, a lesson in understanding and tolerance for one another as well as for the less fortunate, like the “Bird Lady.” Today you may be well off, but tomorrow—well, we already know that today, don’t we? The lesson is there, but the Disney organization has always been pretty good about not making this message too treacly. It’s just about right. As in “A Spoonful of Sugar,” it goes down “in the most delightful way.”
When you put together a good, solid show like this, I’d suppose that a producer or director can dig up any number of singing, dancing actors to play the key roles. Whatever the case, this production has dug up some really fine people to star in Mary Poppins.
Chief of these, of course, is Mary herself, played here by Carolyn Sheen who starred in the original UK tour of the show. She’s bright, youthful, self-assured, clearly loves the part, and inhabits the quirky Mary as if she were born to the role. She has a lovely voice, too, not the substantial instrument of the incomparable Julie Andrews, but a friendly, warm, and ingratiating voice, one that invites you into Mary’s world, no questions asked. She plays Mary with a bit less bite than Andrews. But that makes for a better contrast in this show where some of the darker elements hit closer to home, leaving Mary and her can-do attitude as the only antidote.
As Bert, Gavin Lee, also a veteran of earlier versions of the show, is a delight as well. Not as goofy as Van Dyke in the film, he definitely has a better Cockney accent. But his character is also a bit deeper, a little more nuanced which helps him fit in a bit better with the Banks family when he finally chooses to intrude. Lee has a good voice, great diction (it’s sometimes a little hard to understand the British accents in the production, so beware), and terrific stage presence. And he’s a heck of a dancer, too, particularly in that acrobatic novelty number.
In the smaller roles, Laird Mackintosh—whom I saw in the 2007 Stratford Festival’s delightful production of the Gershwins’ My One and Only) and Blythe Wilson do a fine job as the adult Bankses, with Mackintosh growing into the role more deeply as the show progresses. And it’s a good thing, too, because his obtuse George, traumatized by a lonely childhood himself, needs to grow up, in a way, more thoroughly than do his children. Mackintosh’s role is probably the deepest in the show, character-wise. And his care and feeding of the evolving George puts a real human heart front and center.
Kudos as well for Rachel Izen as the cook-housekeeper Mrs. Brill—she reminds me of wonderful old Mrs. Bridges in PBS’s long ago classic “Upstairs/Downstairs”—Dennis Moench as Robertson Ay, Ellen Harvey as the nasty Miss Andrew (another change from the film), and Mary VanArsdel as an affecting “Bird Woman.”
The pit orchestra — the KenCen’s house band which also performs with the Washington National Opera, plus a few additions from the Disney travelling company—simply sparkled throughout the show. It must be a lot of fun dusting off these wonderful old classics.
My only complaint during the entire evening, as it often is for a guy who does a lot of opera, involves the show’s level of amplification. The sound at the opening was simply too amped up to suit my taste, although the crew seems to have begun modulating things about 10 minutes into the show. While I suppose some electronic boosting is necessary in a big show like this to keep things in balance, I continue to wonder at the intensity of the sound pumping. Would Ethel Merman have needed this?
In the end, the current production of Disney’s Mary Poppins is the rarest of the rare: “a show the whole family will love” as publicists like to proclaim. Adults will love the tunes, the dance numbers, and the contemporary updating which adds a touch of high-seriousness to the show. Kids of all ages will simply delight in the color, the energy, and the surprisingly high quality of the theatrical special effects.
The show is here for a long run—through August, the longest run in all the remaining tour cities. I suspect this will be a hot family ticket, so you might want to check with the box office soon.
Based on the 1964 Walt Disney film, book by Julian Fellowes. Show’s co-creator, Cameron Mackintosh.
Music and Lyrics: Originals by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Directed by Richard Eyre
Co-Director and Choreography: Matthew Bourne.
Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Mary Poppins runs thru Aug 22, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.