BWW Reviews: MARY POPPINS' Umbrella Soars at Playhouse
My experience with Disney's and Cameron Mackintosh's MARY POPPINS has left me in a quandary as to what to write. I've always had mixed feelings about what "Uncle Walt" did with the starchy, no-nonsense nanny of P.L. Travers' work (I thought one of the most understated and interesting films of the last year was SAVING MR. BANKS, which illumined the contest of wills between author and filmmaker, with Emma Thompson's wary "Travers" mistrustful of the animation and music envisioned by Tom Hanks' "Walt Disney"). Of course, Julie Andrews, denied the chance to peddle her flowers in Warner Brothers' film version of MY FAIR LADY as she had so done on Broadway, famously took home an Oscar for her role as the strong-willed but loving governess; since then, with revivals on stage, the casting tendency has been to utilize a more youthful "Mary." In Playhouse on the Square's version of the musical, that tendency has held to course; lovely Lynden Lewis doesn't appear that much older than her two charges; yet, posture in place and umbrella pointed to the heavens, her interpretation admirably adheres to the Andrews template.
Truth to tell, I found the production a bit L O N G. Although the infectious music and inherent lessons are aimed at "youngsters of all ages," I kept anticipating that the smallest members of Sunday's "packed" matinee would begin squirming by the end of the first act (or at least begin segueing into puberty). I was proven wrong; the tykes in attendance (as well as the adults) were captivated by the brisk and energetic staging - and, of course, that legendary Sherman Brothers score (there's so much "ear candy" here that a "spoonful of sugar" is entirely unnecessary). Much of the success, of course, belongs to Director Geoffrey Goldberg, whose swift direction and imaginative choreography assured that there were no lulls in this expansive production.
Impressive, too, is that gigantic and multifaceted set, turning from Cherry Street to the park to the law offices of the father and so forth; scenic designer Jimmy Humphries has evidently put "pencil to paper," and abetted by the lighting design of John Horan and the Victorian costumes of Rebecca Powell, he has visually created a world that is true to time and place.
In many respects, I find MARY POPPINS similar to Rodgers and Hammerstein's SOUND OF MUSIC. In both, there is a governess entrusted with initially incorrigible children; in both, there is an authoritarian figure who initially casts a more intimidating shadow than the Poppins umbrella; in both, the wise protagonist provides a bridge of understanding that heals a schism in a family; and, of course, in both, there are those incredible songs. (A specialist would need a strong inner ear crowbar to dislodge the ongoing melody of "Supercalifragisticexpialidocious" that has insistently kept my head bobbing since Act I's exceptional production number. I was humming away well into my meal at Bari's after the performance. Thank you, Music Director Steven Liening).
Of course, it's the cast here that more than meets the demands of MARY POPPINS. In addition to the impressive debut of Miss Lewis, there's a well-smudged Jordan Nichols as "Bert." His ingratiating chimney sweep (the haunting "Chim Chim Cher-ee" links the various episodes of the story) is yet another impressive performance. While watching him, I kept thinking how tremendous he would be as the cockney beneficiary of ME AND MY GIRL (Rob Hanford would also be perfect for that role. Are any of you theatre "powers that be" listening?) His showpiece number, brilliantly choreographed, is "Step in Time," and it is flawlessly staged and performed, not only by Mr. Nichols, but the entire cast. As the children "Jane" and "Michael," Madeline Bray and Ty Kirk are refreshingly natural (and gifted) young performers; and a winsome Kim Baker and initially distant David Foster are excellent as the parents. Ms. Baker is both winsome and poignant as a woman who tries in vain to connect with the work-obsessed husband, and is equally at a loss as how to be a real mother to her children. As the driven father, Mr. Foster has a brilliantly played scene in which he must choose between two bank customers; it was a "lump in the throat" moment that resonated with moral courage and humanity. In the parts of "the Bird Lady" and stern governess "Miss Andrews," Playhouse favorite Carla McDonald has a chance, once again, to demonstrate why she is one of Memphis' best vocalists (I particularly enjoyed her "face off" - er, "voice off" - with the charming Miss Lewis; no one assays better the role of "dragon lady").
Finally, Miss Poppins, since, at the end of this play, you've re-raveled this family and are evidently out of work, why not travel across town to Theatre Memphis' production of THE ADDAMS FAMILY and check out "Wednesday" and "Pugsley." Now, THAT I'd like to see.
Through September 7. Photo from the program cover provided by Playhouse on the Square.