BWW Reviews: The Fulton's MARY POPPINS - A 'Practically Perfect' Version of the (Flawed) Mackintosh Musical
In the program for MARY POPPINS at the Fulton Theatre, director Marc Robin devotes a couple of pages to his childhood relationship with Mary Poppins - story, movie, music. That's fine - as another Jewish kid of the same age and time, I have my own relationship to the magic of Mary Poppins. My grandmother read P.L. Travers' stories to me. My parents took me to the movie. I wore out multiple needles on my record player - remember those? - while wearing out the LP of the soundtrack. The students in my elementary school era spelling contests were obsessed with one question: would we be asked to spell "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"? Before I was older and met "antidisestablishmentarianism" it was the longest word I knew. And as I had the album, I'd read the word and I could spell it perfectly; I'm still bitter that the school never stuck it into the spelling word mix. I would have won that spelling championship, hands down.
And then there was the time - I was what? All of five? - when I met a group of nuns on the beach and when they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I told them. I wanted to be Mary Poppins. They loved it. And I wasn't even lying.
I was so convinced that Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke were the greatest performers on the planet that I still can't shake it - I voluntarily watched Blake Edwards' "S.O.B." more than once just to see Miss Andrews in it and, I hang my head to confess, I actually watched "Diagnosis: Murder" on a regular basis because... Bert.
I blame Mary Poppins as well as my mother for my passion for oversized handbags. I might need to carry a hatstand in my bag someday. And a giant bottle of medicine - oh, wait, I already carry a huge lot of medicine in mine. See? I told you.
Therefore, I rejoiced when I heard that the formative tale of my childhood was going to Broadway. Richard M. Sherman's and Robert B. Sherman's lyrics and music were going to be transplanted to the stage. Julian Fellowes, better known to many for "Downton Abbey," was adapting the film script to the book. Cameron Mackintosh was doing this, for crying out loud. What could go wrong? Well... a couple of things. Beware the "new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe": the greatest disappointment in my musical life besides modern orchestral music is the new lyrics to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious". "He traveled all around the world, and everywhere he went, he'd use this word and all would say, 'There goes a clever gent'" is gone? No "when dukes and maharajahs passed the time of day with me, I'd say me special word and then they'd ask me out for tea" remains? There's a criminal penalty for tampering with those, some of the Shermans' cleverest lyrics, and with other equally great lyric writing that's gone missing and hasn't been replaced with even half-clever forgeries. There's another criminal penalty for writing "Stay Awake" and "I Love to Laugh" and several other fine Sherman songs from the movie out of the musical and replacing them with "Brimstone and Treacle" and "Being Mrs. Banks".
The other things wrong? Well, Mrs. Banks used to be a spunky suffragette. Why is a discontented former stage actress an improvement? And seriously, would George Banks really marry an actress? She's not our class, dear. Some of the very best people were women's suffragists. But an actress? The horror! No wonder no one wants to have tea with her. She's depressive and miserable where the film Mrs. Banks was strong and dedicated. ("Sister Suffragette" was far more fun, too, than the dismal "Being Mrs. Banks".) And Mr. Banks suffers from a dysfunctional childhood caused by an abusive nanny nicknamed "The Holy Terror" by her former charges, which has caused him not only to be a distant, even absent husband and father, but insulting, slightly abusive, and an all-around louse. So now, Mary Poppins has to play family therapist instead of just being the world's greatest nanny ever. Doctor Phil, where are you when we need you most?
And worst of all... where are the penguins? In my childhood, every kid I knew adored the dancing penguins. The stage musical requires a double-feature with a showing of "Happy Feet" to calm the movie-version-purist's soul. Please, Marc Robin, find it in your heart to insert just one pair of penguins to dance with Bert? My childhood has been ruined, and it's Julian Fellowes' fault for his writing out the dancing penguins. (All right, the estate of P.L. Travers wanted them gone, but what do they know about the miracle of happiness that is dancing penguins?) Between that, the less-than-stellar new lyrics to the song you can't spell, and an absence of Mary Poppins' uncle and his tea on the ceiling, there really is violence done to the true original source - which is the film, not the Travers stories, whatever the Travers estate wants to think.
But, to the production at hand. If you're familiar with the Broadway version or the slightly different original West End one... this isn't quite it. There's no sliding up the banister for Mary Poppins here (the movie taught me all about banister sliding, to the horror of my parents), but that's minor, as she's quite magical enough anyway. There are also a few other edits - and I'm not sure that losing the full toy sequence is a problem; Mackintosh originally banned children under 3 years old from the show as he deemed it too scary for them. A giant life-sized animated Valentine is plenty, and Marc Robin confines the eeriness to that. Frankly, the change is a major improvement in my book (especially as it loses one of the additional non-Sherman numbers that simply don't live up to the original tunes).
The cast, living up to the descriptive song, is practically perfect. Katie Sina, who was indeed Truly Scrumptious in the Fulton's CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG! is everything you want in Mary Poppins - strong, caring, and just a touch peculiar, without being definably odd. Brian Shepard, Cosmo in last year's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, is Bert, Mary Poppins' bestie and partner in crime, and he harks back to some of Dick Van Dyke's best moments, especially when he's in full chimney sweep mode in "Step In Time" and "Chim Chim Cheree". George Banks is played by Curt Dale Clark, who seems almost physically transformed from his Don Lockwood of the Fulton's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or his Corny Collins of HAIRSPRAY into something shorter, stouter, and more dysfunctional. He's a great success at a beastly part - and I don't mean as in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Abby Mueller is, also, completely transformed from the elegant, upbeat narrator of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT of last season into a mousier, unhappy woman who could be straight out of Chekov if this weren't a musical.
Among the other adults, note must be made of Andrew Kindig, whose Robertson Ay is a study in physical comedy, and of the amazing Q. Smith - yes, that's her name - whose Island-influenced Mrs. Corry and whose harridan nanny, Miss Andrew, are spot-on. As they should be - she's played Miss Andrew on Broadway and has toured with the show nationally. She and Debra Thais Smith, who's been at Dutch Apple as Bloody Mary in SOUTH PACIFIC and as Miss Jones in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, are undoubtedly the voices of the year in the region's musical theatre. Either one of them has my vote for monster soprano of the local stage.
Jane and Michael Banks - a Mary Poppins veteran cannot use the phrase without hearing the musical notes for the children's names in their mind - are played by Lauren Elledge and Austin Nedrow. Lauren's a fixture on area stages, and one we might hope to have a future after aging out of children's parts; she's currently up for a Broadway World award for her lead in Susquehanna Stage Company's ANNIE. She's every bit as good here, torn between practical and petulant, torn between believing Mary Poppins and fearing her father. Austin's Michael is moving, desperately seeking even the slightest attention from a father he's not sure loves him. For all their great moments on stage in this show, none is better than the one where, fearing their father may lose his job at the bank, Jane and Michael come downstairs at bedtime to offer him their shillings. It easily could come off as too cutesy, but the direction by Marc Robin and the restraint both of these young actors have keeps that problem well in check.
The Broadway and West End productions have had mixed reviews, partly owing to the dedication to the Disney film that so many of us share. As a reviewer, I have to come down on that same side - an iconic film's had an injustice done to it by the stage version. That said, this is a great production of that difficult stage musical, with a laudable cast. The choreography by Marc Robin is also quite fine, particularly in the chimney sweep dance that's always been one of the most important scenes in this story, and in the dance for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", which charmingly takes on its own version of a spelling bee in this production, where Mrs. Corry's sweet shop's lollipops are all filled with letters. If only the new lyrics lived up to the arrangement and the choreography, what a supercalifragilistic scene it would be. And if only some of the pieces that were larger production numbers for the film weren't truncated for the stage musical, robbing audiences of the opportunity to enjoy more fully realized dance scenes. On the production end, sound and lighting need to be tightened up - there were substantial missed cues when I attended.
See it anyway. Just beware of those silly new and not improved supercalifragilyrics. At the Fulton through December 29; for tickets call the box office at (717) 39717425, or visit www.thefulton.org.
Photo credit: J. Urdaneta Photography