Saturday, November 14, 2009

Theatre Review: "Mary Poppins"


How do you take a story, so ingrained in generations of minds, and put it up on the stage while maintaining the essence of what continues to make the film so beloved? So beloved that 45 years after it's release, it can still captivate and delight?

How do you return to 75 year old source material and revive some the darker elements and decidedly British feel that the author felt was missing in the beloved film (until her death, author P.L. Travers was not a fan of what Walt Disney had done and even at the Premiere told him that the animated sequences would of course have to be removed).

Will it work? Is it dated? Is there a timely message still to be found?

The answer is YESSS!!!!! (and a little 'no').

Walt Disney (sorry, I'm not dropping the 'Walt' even if the company has) and ├╝ber-successful theatrical producer Cameron Ma
ckintosh (think "Cats", "Phantom" and "Les Miz") have taken on this monumental task and have succeeded, with some personal reservations.

I'm a Poppins Puppy. I have grown up with Walt Disney's "Mary Poppins" (1964). I wanted Julie Andrews as the titular nanny to be my Mom (sorry, real Mom). And who wouldn't. She can snap her fingers and your toys are put away. Along with her handsome ragamuffin street friend (the tall and kid-friendly Dick Van Dyke) you can enter new worlds by jumping into street paintings; laughing with a jocular Uncle Albert on the ceiling (sorry Uncle Chuck, we never dined topside) is just an afternoon tea. Life is tuneful with Mary. I even still have a handful of original 45s that make up the soundtrack, tucked safely away in a box.

When I was in 4th Grade, Cindy Hallowell and I would 'perform' songs from "Mary Poppins" on the way to and at our bus stop (she as Mary and I as Bert, dancing along the top a small fence substituting for a rooftop). We tried to convince our Music Teacher, Miss Silverman, that we should put on a staged production of the movie. She say we couldn't until we were in 6th Grade, but also thought it would be very hard to turn that movie into a staged production (which was also something that was not being done with as much regularity as today... I talking to you, successful and equally fabulous "Legally Blonde", but also you, drab and dreary and why bother "Dirty Dancing).

Regardless, Cindy and I kept talking about this and practicing. Two years later when we finally hit 6th Grade, Miss Silverman was gone, and so was our dream of a staged Poppins. I'm glad to say a few decades later I've been proved right - that it can and has been done, and done right... mostly.

Charming, yes. Production Design, phenomenal. Casting/Acting/Dancing, very good (shout outs to Ashley Brown as "Mary" and Gavin Lee as "Bert" and Carter Thomas as "Jordan"... err, I mean "Michael Banks" - Jordan is my nephew and these two are like twins!). Timeless songs by the tune-rrific Sherman Bros., happily mostly there. Animated Sequences, unfortunately not.

Gone is Mrs. Banks "Sister Suffragette"-ing, but that's probably good as it is an overly dated theme that doesn't really serve a purpose to the plot.

Gone is Uncle Albert, the robust gentleman who "Love(d) to Laugh" (long and loud and clear) as his guffaws sent him and his tea-totaling guests ceiling-ward. But he was really only an episodic side-trip that also didn't add anything to the plot.

The additions: Miss Andrew as Mr. Bank's childhood Nanny (and a deliciously wickedly evil personage); dancing Park Statuary (yay Brian Letendre); and an overall darker tone; have all made this Production worth seeing.

The new songs try very hard to fit in with the familiar score and for the most part do their job. I was a little disappointed that "Step In Time" wasn't more fabulously choreographed, especially with Matthew Bourne on board, but it was very good. "Stay Awake" is missing (really George Stiles and Anthony Drewe - you couldn't slip it into the underscore?). But "Feed the Birds" still made me tear up - the lyrics of the bridge get me every time:

"All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can't see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares."

Most sorely gone are my favorite Penguins though. And while some bits of animated effects where used (stars and flying silhouettes) and Bert did manage to draw in mid-air on a screen that was behind him, my little avian friends were missed.

I totally would have staged the number using animation rear projected onto a series moving screens that danced around with Bert (the wonderful Gavin Lee). Of course, the inclusion of the Penguins would not have fit the tone of the show and probably would have cost an unnecessary flipper and a foot. OK, so they made the right decision.

Bottom-line is, even if you only 'like' Mary Poppins a little, go see it. Bring the kids (they will love it). And while it will never replace those 139 minutes of Oscar-winning memories, it does stand proudly on its own as an evening (or afternoon) of fun entertainment for the entire family.

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