Old familiar tunes like "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Jolly Holiday" and "Let's Go Fly a Kite" harmonize with new tunes penned to bulk out a Broadway musical. The result is the Disney and Cameron Mackintosh version of Mary Poppins making a tour stop at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford through Sept. 23.
Madeline Trumble flies into the title role here (literally) as the mysterious nanny who works her magic on the unruly Banks household in London at the turn of the 20th century. Michael and Jane (Eli Tokash and Julianna Rigoglioso the night I attended) are incorrigible – too much for their insecure mother, Winifred (full-voiced Elizabeth Broadhurst) or busy banker father, George (Michael Dean Morgan) to handle. Mary arrives on the scene with her never-empty bag of magical surprises and when she teams up with chimney-sweep friend Bert (Con O'Shea-Creal), fun ensues.
The kids fly kites in the park, visit London's rooftops and the stars, dance with statues that come to life, indulge at a candy shop owned by Mrs. Corry (Tonya Thompson
) and soon everything is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (this number, along with full tapping "Step in Time," is a show stopper, performed with gusto -- and spelling prompts -- to choreography by Matthew Bourne
, who also serves as co-director with Director Richard Eyre
But everything isn't super, really. George doesn't have time for his kids He talks negatively about his wife who isn't schooled in how to take her place in society and makes a couple of questionable lending decisions that could cost him his career at the bank (depicted in sharp angles on a quick-change set by Bob Crowley
that gives surprising depth and height). When Mary leaves, opening the door for George's former nanny, the strict and brutal Miss Andrew (Karen Murphy
) to take over, things go downhill fast further upsetting the Banks and their housekeeper Mrs. Brill (a humorous Tregoney Shepherd
Can Mary's magic and a lucky handshake from Bert make everything OK again?
Given that this is a Disney musical, the answer to that should be easy, but in this rendition of the P.L. Travers
story (on which the 1964 Disney musical starring Julie Andrew and Dick Van Dyke
was based), some of the telling in Julian Fellowes
book is more "British" – darker -- than we might expect. George is downright unpleasant. In an angry physical encounter with his father, Michael is left holding his arm as though injured. The scene is realistic, but perhaps a tad harsh for the very young kids in the audience.
Costume and lighting effects (Crowley and Natasha Katz, design) that create the realistic-looking park statues deserve kudos, but the choreography that has Neleus (Leeds Hill) and his sculpture friends doing ballet borders on the absurd. The scenes where the statues and dolls come to life have a creepy feel to them in a sharp contrast to the otherwise typical, over-the-top cutsey direction that gives a too-large spoonful of sugar. You can almost imagine a finger inserted in the dimples of the two youngsters as they pose and smile to evoke "awwws" but the dolls are seeking vengeance for the cruel treatment they have received….
Fellowes' script, which adds some elements from the children's books and eliminates some from the movie, is rather choppy and speeds along in places at whiplash pace (despite a fairly long 2:40 run time), so if you aren't up on the story of Mary Poppins, you might not follow easily, particularly in the first several scenes. The night I attended, a fire alarm, triggered by haze effects in the show, forced an evacuation of the building right in the middle of the most moving number, "Feed the Birds," and resulted in an even longer evening. (Note, start times for this run are different: 7:30 Tuesday through Saturday and 6:30 on Sunday).
The musical, which originated in 2004 in London's West end, still is running on Broadway (where Crowley's scenic design won a 2006 Tony Award). The sets for the tour are a scaled-back version retaining detail, but made simpler for travel.
MARY POPPINS runs through Sept. 23; (note different times for this run) Tuesday through Saturday 7:30 pm , Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 1:30 and 6:30 pm; Tickets $20-$90, (860) 987-5900 or www.bushnell.org.