Certainly there are elements of the much-beloved Mary Poppins tale that could, in the retelling, seem sinister. She flies in on the wind with an umbrella—not much of a departure from the black-clad ladies in pointy hats who take to the sky on brooms. She’s not overly affectionate with the children—indeed, she’s critical, demanding, and difficult.
But there’s a gleam of magic in her eye, a cheeky smirk to temper the harsh words. Those little things that make the children fall in love with her. Those little things tell us, the audience, that she’s not the witch about to run off with the kids.
This holiday season, Toby’s Dinner Theatre offers up a production of Mary Poppins that neither embraces the darker side of the tale nor defies it with a wink and a smile.
The musical, written by the Academy Award-winning Sherman Brothers (with additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) and a book by Julian Fellowes, fuses elements from both the well-known film and the book it was based on.
Directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, this production moves us quickly and at times jarringly through the streets of London, the Banks family home, the park, a shop staffed by clowns, above the rooftops, and in a bedroom where toys come frighteningly to life.
We meet Mary Poppins (Maura Hogan) very quickly in Act I, and she introduces herself to the Banks children by literally singing her own praises. “Practically Perfect,” a song written for the film, scrapped, and reinstated with a new melody for the stage adaptation, is anything but. Hogan has the vocal chops to perform it well, yet the placement and staging of this number –when she’s scarcely said three words to the children – leaves it sitting awkwardly in a liminal space, neither entirely serious nor believably cheeky. Her somber expression throughout the song If anything, we come out of this song believing not that Miss Poppins is perfect (practically or un), but that she’s quite full of herself.
Indeed, that uncertain space occupies much of this play.
Mary does not smile often, and the staging keeps her physically apart from her charges. When young Michael says, “When Mary holds your hand / You feel so grand,” you wonder when, exactly, his hand was held. And in many of the numbers meant to illustrate Mary’s magic (“Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”), the staging puts the children outside the action—idle onlookers to the grown-ups’ fun.
The audience most enjoyed themselves when the children were involved in the magic. Without question, the high point of this musical comes in the second act, during “Step in Time” – performed by Bert (Jeffrey Shankle) with the ensemble as chimneysweeps, all tapping and stomping their way across the rooftops. This rollicking number unearths a contagious energy as performers swarm the stage, erupting into unfettered explosions of percussion and dance.
And remarkably, it is Bert who flies – flipping through the air above the city’s chimneys. (This is especially noteworthy in comparison to Ms. Poppins, who rides a seated swing across the air when she arrives and departs.)
Other high points include a heartrending rendition of “Feed the Birds,” performed stunningly by Julia Lancione, and a number of clownish household moments shared between Mrs. Brill (Jane C. Boyle) and Robertson Ay (David James).
Closes February 1, 2015
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
5900 Symphony Woods Road
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $53 – $58
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Mr. and Mrs. Banks (David Bosley Reynolds and Elizabeth Rayca) are, interestingly enough, the most fully-rendered characters of the lot. George had a troubled childhood. Winifred was an aspiring actress. Both are unhappy in life and their marriage, and in need of help for more than just their children’s sake, and they travel that journey with complexity and finesse. As Jane and Michael, young performers Samantha Bloom-Yakaitis and Gavin Willard navigate the complexities of accent, song, and staging with a poise and talent comparable to their more seasoned costars. Overall,
The trouble with Mary comes first from the script. In pulling together elements from the both film and the book, this show ends up feeling rushed and muddled. Much of the dialogue has been stripped away or woven into song, leaving us with little sense of Mary’s relationship with the children—we are told more about it than we see, which, for a medium like theatre, seems problematic. An unsmiling Poppins, an uncertain relationship with the children, and a dim lighting design further diminish the cheer and clarity.
Is it still a fun and interesting evening of family-friendly theatre? Absolutely. But for the older and more perceptive viewers, this Mary may not be as light and carefree as one might expect.