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MARY POPPINS Tour Review: Cleveland


The Banks house in Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's theatrical version of "Mary Poppins" is a wonder to behold. Designed by Bob Crowley, the huge structure opens like a storybook, spins to reveal more secrets and has the magical ability to cause a gasp of delight from both parents and children alike. If only the happenings that occur within the Banks household were nearly as memorable as that house.

Based on the 1964 Disney masterpiece of the same name, which is oft-considered the best live-action Walt Disney production ever filmed, and the stories of P.L. Travers, this version of "Poppins" meanders, stutters and, every now and then, soars during its hugely overlong two-hour-and-forty-five minute running time. Sure, there are times when you can feel magic coming to life on stage (and on the ceiling of the stage, and over the audience) but, for the most part, the production lulls you to sleep with snooze-worthy new numbers and bad updates on classic numbers from the film. When the toys come to life and surround the sleeping children in a threatening manner, you get the feeling they are also pressuring the kids in the audience to not become restless or there will be consequences.

The plot follows the same structure as the film though it differs in the details, opening with the Banks children feeling unloved by their father (a great Karl Kenzler). Enter the practically perfect Mary Poppins (Ashley Brown, who enchanted in Disney's "On the Record" and "Beauty and the Beast" previously) and the engaging chimney-sweep Bert (Gavin Lee, who originated the part on the West End), who injects joy and vivacity into the children's lives over the course of many adventures, detours and candy-coated lessons. 

Though the film is part of the Disney family and has some of the same song titles (though often not the same melodies) as the film, the writers and producers have made the decision to adhere the musical closer to the Travers' books. In other words, Mary is meaner and the show is darker. And that is the musical's first mistake.

The film version took almost as many detours as the musical does, and many of these scenes (in both versions) have little to do with the overall plot. But the film version of Mary was so engaging, so winning, that you had no problem going along for the ride because you knew there would be fun along the way. In the theatrical production Mary is, well, a bit of a bore. For a dame that can fly, get men to dance on the ceiling and can actually pack well (the children pull everything but the kitchen sink from her bag early in the show), Poppins seems to be very bored about the entire affair. You almost expect her to say, "Oh, a talking, dancing nude statue, how quaint," during the "Jolly Holiday" musical number. Why would we want to hang out with that party pooper for almost three hours?

The blame shouldn't be placed on Brown's shoulders, because you can tell she is trying to put character into her character at some points. She is an excellent actress and has several moments where she seems to wink at the audience and let them know she is in on the joke, but the part is written so one-dimensionally that she cannot hope to escape the tedium.

If you are a huge fan of the music from the film, you just might be let down. Most of the hummable masterpieces (originally written by Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman) are listed in the program as being part of the show, but the songs have been revised, revamped and made all the more mild by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. They have also created several new songs for the show, and I'll be damned if I can remember even one of them.

Yes, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is no longer as super, "A Spoonful of Sugar" has now soured, and all sorts of other puns about the song titles. Only "Let's Go Fly A Kite" "The Perfect Nanny" and "Feed the Birds" have escaped unscathed. While adapting songs for the stage is sometimes necessary considering the source material, and can work to the show's advantage, there is really no reason for the "adaptations," as the program calls it. The songs seem, for the most part, slower, awkward and just not as toe-tapping as the originals.

The one exception is a rejiggered "Step in Time," which has been tweaked into the high point of the show by making it a larger, more epic dance number than the original film envisioned. The ensemble chimney sweeps dance all over the stage before Lee (who is magnificently vivacious as Bert) finally climbs around the stage-right up the wall and over the ceiling. Despite the dullness of what has happened before and that which is still to come, for a bright moment your mouth drops and you remember just why theater can be so magical.

The cast is, on the whole, quite splendid and there are a few more moments that merit praise, such as Mary's final flight over the audience and, well, that house. You can't say that this is not a great-looking production and the Disney special effect magicians have outdone themselves. In fact, I'm tempted to recommend the production because it is, quite simply, the biggest, most technically accomplished touring show that's stopped in Cleveland in years (and, considering the competition, that's quite a compliment). But the things that support these great special effects are just not anything memorable. Ultimately, "Mary Poppins" makes the huge mistake of assuming that a few brilliant special effects and an engaging cast can elevate tepid characterization and storytelling into something classic. Whoops.

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From This Author Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor was born in Ohio in 1985 and recently graduated from Kent State University with a bachelor's in News Journalism. His first novel, "Adrift," (read more...)