BWW Reviews: Aurora's Magical MARY POPPINS Brings New Surprises to Beloved Classic
There is something very special, even magical, in the air in Lawrenceville this summer. As he did with last year's LES MISERABLES, director Justin Anderson has found exciting ways to bring new surprises to a beloved show that we already knew so well. Under his capable direction, MARY POPPINS is transformed from the classic Disney movie of chalk drawings and dancing penguins, into a poignant tale of a loving family in need of saving from its own prosperity; with just a pinch of magic to help along the way. This family-friendly classic, which runs through August 31st, is a can't-miss for fans of wonder and magic both young and old.
The Banks family's savior, of course, comes in the form of an unusual nanny, played with charming effervescence by Galen Crawley. Though there are plot and musical differences between the movie and stage versions, Crawley gives you enough of the Mary from the film for you to be comfortable, while also adding her own bit of spice to the spoon full of sugar. Though she doesn't have the crystal clear head voice of Julie Andrews, Crawley has one of the most layered and wonderful belts you are ever likely to hear. Additionally, she brings an extra amount of healthy self-confidence, which is often missing from portrayals of a character who anoints herself "Practically Perfect." On top of that, Crawley's personal presence instantly draws you in, which makes Mary's magnetic power over everyone that she meets all that more understandable. Without a doubt, Crawley is one of Atlanta's most special theatrical talents.
In addition to Crawley, the POPPINS cast is made up of an incredible mix of new and familiar Atlanta-theatre faces. Though it is her first production in the area, Liza Jaine (Winifred Banks) is clearly a star. She possesses a gorgeous voice, and easily embodies the vulnerability of a once-strong woman desperately trying to meet her husband's expectations. As is always the case, William S. Murphey is exceptional as Winifred's husband George. Though he is perhaps more well known as a straight-theatre actor, he has a very nice voice, even if he Rex Harrison speak-sings much of his songs. While he is coarse throughout most of the show, when George finally discovers what is truly important in his life, his epiphany will melt your heart. As we learned in last year's Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson movie, the MARY POPPINS film was about SAVING MR. BANKS, however, the stage musical focuses more on the saving of the entire Banks family; and based on the performances of these two actors, that change of plot is extremely effective.
The Banks' staff is played by a delightful collection of colorful characters. Jessica De Maria steals nearly every scene she is in as both housekeeper Mrs. Brill and the Bird Woman. Her put-upon Scottish servant is one of the show's comedic highlights, while her duet with Crawley on "Feed the Birds" was extremely moving. As Mr. Banks' formidable former nanny, Miss Andrew, Heidi Cline McKerley is every bit a cross between Nanny McPhee and The Queen of Hearts. She is disturbing, frightening, evil, and an all-around joy to watch! Dan Ford plays the accident-prone butler Robertson Ay. Though I remember the role being larger when I saw the national tour, Ford makes the most of his comedic moments. The always-enjoyable Googie Uterhardt is very funny as both Admiral Boom and the bank Chairman.
As was the case in LES MISERABLES, the children in MARY POPPINS are extremely impressive. On the night I saw the show, Jane was played by Mabel Tyler and Joseph Masson was on as Michael (Sarah Carroll and Benjamin Harding also alternate in the roles). Normally in shows, from community to professional, when kids are on stage, many audiences patronizingly smile at their cuteness, and marvel that they were able to remember all of their lines. However, in this case, Tyler and Masson are full-fledged singing, dancing, and acting members of this talented ensemble, and are more than able to hold their own with the likes of Crawley, Murphey, Jaine, et al.
Though Dick Van Dyke is often considered Andrews' equal in the film (his legendarily bad accent not withstanding), unfortunately, I didn't feel the same of Aurora's Bert. Though Andy Meeks brings an incredible amount of affable talent to the role, I felt that many of his scenes; be they singing and dancing, or quietly narrating during scene changes; were frantic and hurried. His energy and excitement perhaps got the best of him and limited the ability for his obvious charisma to take hold.
For me, the strength of Anderson's shows, is the attention he encourages his actors to pay to the most specific details of their performances; something that doesn't always happen in musicals. Whether it is in conniving looks shared between Jane and Michael, or Crawley's wry, dimpled-smile knowing Mary's plan was coming together, these nuances create so much depth that's not on the page, that you feel as if you are seeing one of your favorite stories truly brought to life for the very first time. Anderson has quickly become Atlanta's resident magic-maker, and I am glad that he has found an official home with Aurora.
That being said, similar to my reservations with Meeks, certain scenes in the show flew by so fast, that they lacked any specificity and clarity. I thought occasional jokes were rushed and the human interactions I mentioned above were missed because of the break-neck speed. If the cast is able to ever-so-slightly take its collective foot off of the gas, these scenes will have more room to breathe, and will be much more satisfying.
As Crawley told me when I spoke to her before the show opened, the Broadway choreography for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" has been replaced by original work from choreographer Jen MacQueen. What she came up with for this number is as clever, intricate, and well-executed as anything you will see onstage anywhere. The "Step in Time" choreography was also exciting, but "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was so jam-packed full of fun, that I was very grateful that they brought it back as an encore.
If you are unfamiliar with the new music created for the stage version by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, there will undoubtedly be times throughout the show where you momentarily question whether or not all, or part, of a song was in the movie version. Their new numbers fit seamlessly in with the Richard and Robert Sherman classics from the film. Though the book, by DOWNTON ABBEY creator Julian Fellowes, seems a little more scattered than the script of the movie, he incorporates a number of elements from the P.L. Travers book series to replace the film's more difficult to translate elements.
With over 200 costume pieces built specifically for this production, designer Sydney Roberts has created a wonderful visual palette that pays tribute to the original film, while creating some wonderful new looks as well. Shannon Robert's set design is most effective when the stage is bare, and we can see the London houses lit up by candles in the windows. Though all of the set pieces evoke a sense of sidewalk chalk art, some of the larger pieces are a bit cumbersome and oddly shaped, and therefore don't quite rise to the level of the rest of the design. Obviously, any production of MARY POPPINS requires a certain amount of flying, and the stunts designed by Delbert Hall and D2 Flying Effects elicited numerous "Ewwwws" and "Ahhhhs" from the audience. However, while it is always exhilarating to see someone come down from the skies, or walk on the ceiling, for me, those tricks were overshadowed by the magic created in the performances of the cast.
If you have children, or ever once was one yourself, do not miss out on this most magical of musicals. Though I did not at all enjoy the National Tour production that came to the Fox in 2012, I cannot more highly recommend the Aurora Theatre's MARY POPPINS, which runs through August 31st in the Lawrenceville Square. For tickets, visit the Aurora's website, or call 678-226-6222.
Did you join Mary and the Banks family in London already? Let me know what you thought of the show in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt.
1) Meeks and Crawley | Chris Bartelski
2) Jaine | Chris Bartelski
3) Masson, Cline McKerley, and Tyler | Chris Bartelski
4) Meeks, Crawley, Company | Chris Bartelski
5) Company | Chris Bartelski
6) Ford, DeMaria, Tyler, and Masson | Chris Bartelski