Saturday, October 3, 2009

Almost Practically Perfect

The Mary Poppins tour is one of the few shows that came through town where a lot of people I know attended. I know people who want to see The Lion King or Wicked and aren’t able to get tickets, but here, they had the magic blending of the desire to pay the money to see the show and the availability of seats for it to happen. And the one thing each of these people who saw it had in common was that they all loved it.

I was one of them.

Of all the Disney stage shows that originated as movies, Mary Poppins is the first show to feel authentic to the stage, not dependant upon gimmicks (the video projections of Tarzan), awkward visuals (Timon and the waterfall in The Lion King), or incongruities (a teapot the size of Beth Fowler in Beauty and the Beast). Thankfully, the creators don’t attempt to replicate all the special effects of the movie—let’s hope Disney continues down this route.

And that is the strength of Mary Poppins. I had already heard that the movie differed from the original books—and the movie is fantastic—but it seems right for the stage show to return to those roots, particularly if the movie cannot be replicated. On stage, the characters are deeper, more human. The Banks family of the original movie is a Disney creation of the era, the Banks family of the stage is rooted more firmly in real life.

The biggest strength of the production—the biggest strength of any production—is that cast. God bless Disney and Cameron Mackintosh for sending Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee out on tour! They spear-headed a marvelous group of actors.

Ashley Brown imbues Mary Poppins with humor and a sauciness that differs from the Julie Andrews interpretation, which is more than fitting since stage Mary is written more than just a little differently from movie Mary. My favorite moment of the whole show is when Ashley Brown tells Mr. Banks that she doesn’t explain anything with a flirty wink that leaves him speechless.

Gavin Lee is a great Bert filled with charisma and stage presence. Other highlights of the cast include Ellen Harvey as a delectable and hilarious Miss Andrew who stops the show twice with crazy vibrato. Megan Osterhaus also shines as a prettily voiced but uncertain Mrs. Banks. The two children—Aida Neitenbach and Christopher Flaim—were wonderful.

Upon reflection, the weakest link in the show—which I am, by far, not the first one to acknowledge—are the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Within the show, they are very fitting and appropriate. The songs do what they should, and in that respect, they are delightful. At the same time, the Sherman Brothers have a knack with melding melody with clever and melodic lyrics that Stiles and Drewe don’t have. The Original London Cast recording, for example, doesn’t withstand multiple hearings in the same way many other recent scores do—Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, or The Wedding Singer, for example. The best songs in the show are undoubtedly the ones that remain un-rewritten from the movie (and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). Stiles and Drewe do a nice job of zapping the spark from “Jolly Holliday” and “Step in Time,” though it was important that they alter the songs to fit their new purpose.

The other weak link in the show is the choreography by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear. “Step in Time” is wonderful, and the spelling in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a good, but songs like “Jolly Holliday” never excite (wouldn’t it be fun to think of what Susan Stroman or Kathleen Marshall might have done with them?).

The sets and costumes are by Bob Crowley, who always does such beautiful work.

In a separate note, I think it’s important to acknowledge that Mary Poppins seems to be part of the increasing trend over the past few years to get lazy on hiding the backstage. Though I paid full price, I saw several performers standing in the wings waiting for their entrance, saw a stage hand behind one of the sets during one scene, saw Mary grabbing the kite and waiting for her big entrance in Act 2, and in getting Bert ready for his specialty in “Step in Time,” the stage hands were all but on stage preparing him. Perhaps some of the Disney magic needs a little help from smoke and mirrors to mask the backstage.

Those criticisms aside, Mary Poppins is a delightful show, tons of fun, and left an audience thrilled and moved.

The Broadway Mouth
October 3, 2009

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