Timeless and Timely 'Mary Poppins' Premieres in Los Angeles
Many people rightly consider "Mary Poppins" a timeless classic. Well, with the new musical's Los Angeles premiere Sunday night at the Ahmanson Theater, you can also call it timely. While it first premiered in London five years ago in a very different economic and social climate, seeing it now, amidst the current economic crisis and the want to go 'back to basics', the stage musical seems more appropriate, meaningful and heartfelt. We could all use a little "Mary Poppins" in our lives, to teach us all that the love of family is more important than anything else.
Whether it is from the P.L. Travers' series of books, or the venerable movie version starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, most everyone is familiar with the story of the mysterious and magical nanny, Mary Poppins, who arrives at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane to help the Banks family cope with their unruly two children. Through her unorthodox ways, the entire family is transformed amidst wondrous adventures through London.
If you are looking for a faithful recreation of the film in the stage version which had its Los Angeles premiere on Sunday Night at the Ahmanson Theater, you may be disappointed, as the musical more closely follows the tone of the books, with Mary Being a bit more vain and acerbic than the sugary sweet nanny from the film. This shift in tone, however, works quite well for the overall mood of the musical, for the book, by Academy Award-winner Julian Fellowes, is certainly a bit darker than the movie, but also a more nuanced, richer tale. This also plays out in the color palette of the sets, costumes (both by Bob Crowley) and lighting, aside from the moments when Mary's magic creates a mystical world of Technicolor where even stone statues come alive to join in the fun.
The score, full of the most memorable Sherman Brother songs such as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidicious," "Jolly Holiday," "Feed the Birds," "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and "Step In Time" (which seems to almost stop time in its incredibly magnificent staging in the show), is aptly supported by a number of new tunes penned by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. While it would seem an almost insurmountable task trying to live up to the venerable film score, Stiles and Drewe manage to create their own classics, with "Practically Perfect" and "Anything Can Happen" being two songs that fit seamlessly into the musical.
The cast is top rate, led by Ashley Brown, who originated the role of Mary in the Broadway premiere, and Gavin Lee, who originated the role of Bert in both London and on Broadway. Ms. Brown's deliciously played Poppins, plays the title role not as a "SuperNanny" type – that's too goody two-shoes for her - but as being better suited for a Bravo docu-series, where she's the know-it-all nanny always ready with a quick, biting zinger. Mr. Lee, who despite playing the role for close to five years, gives a joyous performance with effervescence and energy that makes you feel as though it was his first night, too. Another standout is Los Angeles local, Mary Vanarsdel, who gives an incredibly touching rendition of "Feed the Birds".
Anthony Lyn, who staged this tour, stays mostly true to the original direction of Richard Eyre and co-direction of Matthew Bourne (who also created the original choreography), but stumbles somewhat in the first act, with some sloppy transitions which seemed to hold the show back from firing on all cylinders until Act Two.