BWW Reviews: MARY POPPINS Tour Flies Into the O.C.

By: Jul. 26, 2011
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As a self-described Disney geek and a huge fan of the studio's classic films, the mere thought that their theatrical arm had plans to finally premiere the musical stage version of MARY POPPINS in London—then eventually on Broadway and on tour—was, literally, music to my ears. Even to this day, thanks to a slew of memorable songs and its magical mash-up of animation and live-action, Walt Disney's cherished Academy Award-winning 1964 film starring Julie Andrews (who won the Oscar® for the role) still holds a special place in my heart.

What's not to love? Based on the popular children's book series by P.L. Travers that Disney shaped into an even more renowned movie musical, the stage iteration's current touring company has temporarily taken up residence at the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Orange County for an extended four-week limited engagement through August 7.

On paper, this new enterprise sounded extremely promising. This new MARY POPPINS aimed to combine not only the proven talents of Disney's theater wizards with mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh (who actually originally owned the rights to mount a stage version), but that it will also be a fresh new take that splices the stand-alone story popularized in the film with less-familiar vignettes lifted directly from Tarvers' books. Better still, Richard and Robert Sherman's Oscar-winning music and lyrics will be brightened with new orchestrations alongside new music fashioned by the Olivier Award-winning songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

The main backbone of the story, as expected, stays closely tied to the film's narrative. Acting as the show's narrator and guardian angel of sorts, we are welcomed by Bert (the winning Nicolas Dromard) who takes us to the house on No.17 Cherry Tree Lane, just at the turn of the 20th century. There, we find the two adorable but madly rambunctious Banks children driving yet another Nanny to an abrupt resignation. The household understandably is thrown into a tizzy.

Forced to once again search for a new live-in Nanny for their unruly children, strict disciplinarian George Banks (Laird Mackintosh) and his subjugated wife Winifred Banks (Blythe Wilson) clash in their differing opinions on the qualifications needed for their next employee. Even their own kids Jane (Camille Mancuso at this performance) and Michael (Tyler Merna at this performance) offer up their own advertisement for a Nanny, but their father condescendingly dismisses their contribution, tearing it up and discarding it straight into the fireplace.

As fate would have it, the children's wishes come to vivid life once Mary Poppins (the gorgeous Steffanie Leigh) lands at the Banks household. Using a bit of clever manipulation and a disarming self-confidence, the new Nanny—with the children's torn-up advertisement in hand magically stitched back together—convinces everyone, including the suspiciously skeptical Mr. Banks, that she's the right gal to get the job done.

Thus begins a series of magical, lesson-laden adventures for the Banks children, including trips to the park where statues come to life, a rousing spelling lesson at Mrs. Corry's sweet shop, and a gravity-defying dance party high above the rooftops of London with a bunch of soot-covered chimney sweeps. Starved for fatherly affections, the fantastical outings prove to captivate the children, but incenses the rigid Mr. Banks—himself suffering from an increased stress level due to his work at the bank. Can Mr. Banks stop long enough to notice how much his emotional distance is affecting his relationship with his family?

Joyfully engaging but oddly peculiar, this stage version of MARY POPPINS—which weaves peppy elements from the much-beloved Disney movie with less-bouyant passages from Travers' darker, moodier books—is easily likable, but can be challenging to really love. Don't get me wrong... It is certainly a thoroughly entertaining show, presenting its audience with one dazzling, terrifically-staged number after another with great showmanship, impressive singing, and inimitable gusto. But thematically, somehow, by eschewing a straight-on, amplified translation of the movie musical, the show itself loses a little bit of the heart and wide-eyed wonder from the film, as it busily takes to the task of producing a barrage of visual feasts for ticket-buyers.

As a stage show, MARY POPPINS looks and sounds incredibly thrilling, but feels a tad overstuffed—this despite the fact that a few of the film's much-loved sequences have been scrapped completely or repurposed into newer vignettes. Many of the magical moments in the show feel unduly rushed in favor of packing in as many spectacular production numbers within its running time as possible. While it's not such a terrible thing—you absolutely walk away entertained—you can't help but feel that there's more that you're missing out on.

Granted, again, the show is unmistakably a treat to watch, but many of the scenes don't elicit the kind of deeper emotional investment the film handily commands. Gone are many of the film's cheekier moments, like Uncle Albert's ceiling party, the carousel horses that come to life, and even the constant roof-top presence of delusional Admiral Boom who fires his cannon with military precision each morning. (The Admiral does make a brief cameo...sans his rooftop ship and crew).

In their place: a disturbingly dark, head-scratching sequence where the children's vengeful toys come to life, summarily scaring the crap out of them. There's the appearance of Mr. Banks' former Nanny, the "holy terror" Miss Andrew (the incredible, mesmerizing Q. Smith). Also, in what quickly proves to be a welcome improvement from the film, there's a colorfully-reimagined sequence featuring "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" which becomes the show's ultimate, high-energy highlight. Kids and their parents will thrill to actually spelling the word instead of just singing it.

Though I still found myself getting a bit teary-eyed during "Feed The Birds" (my favorite song from the show), its sped-up appearance here feels more like a passing moment rather than the "Very Important Scene" designation it was gently bestowed with in the film. The duet between Mary and the Bird Woman (Janet MacEwen) is indeed beautiful, but feels a bit like a narrative afterthought. Even the character of Mrs. Banks gets an unfair downgrade in the stage musical, presented merely as a doting, cowering wife to a domineering husband instead of the more interesting, whip-smart suffragette we got in the movie. Rather than wittily getting her husband to respect her clever opinions, the stage version of Mrs. Banks surrenders far too easily to her husband's barking orders—which, sadly, may be more closely aligned to the reality of this time period.

Though these gripes may seem many, they are all ultimately minor ones, because the show itself ultimately still rings true as a sensational piece of live theater. Aside from the eye-popping costumes and the colorful, extraordinary sets designed by Tony winner Bob Crowley (you'll marvel at the house on 17 Cherry Tree Lane, which truly feels like a child's dollhouse come to magical life), MARY POPPINS features some marvelous dancing courtesy of choreographers Matthew Bourne, Stephen Mear, and tour associate choreographer Geoffrey Garrett. The gorgeous staging, spearheaded by tour director Anthony Lyn (taking the reins from original co-directors Bourne and Richard Eyre), is a feast for the senses. This new go-round for the national tour is only slightly less elaborate than the long, sit-down engagement at the Ahmanson Theatre back in 2009, so missing out on seeing the show back then shouldn't be too heartbreaking (that is, unless you wanted to see Broadway cast members Gavin Lee and Ashley Brown reprising their roles in that engagement).

And in an astonishing bit of synergy, every single new song penned by Stiles and Drewe meshes so well into the existing score, you'd think The Sherman Brothers got back together and wrote new music for the show. Besides the remixed "Supercali..." complete with physically-manifested spelling instructions, the newly-composed counterpoint in "Jolly Holiday" feels like a lost musical treasure that's been gloriously restored. As for the batch of original songs, they are all fairly well-done, but the best, most memorable of the lot is the brilliant "Practically Perfect," Mary's self-congratulatory theme song that explains her raison d'etre. The song's clever wordplay and jaunty melody is a winning match to the iconic songs from The Sherman Brothers, and immensely helps overcome the show's few shortcomings. (The Broadway and National Tour productions of the show also include the song "Playing The Game" which has since replaced "Temper Temper" from the original London production).

The ensemble cast too is populated with many pleasing performances. As the title character, Leigh channels just the right amount of cheekiness and confidence required to fill the shoes of the world's most famous nanny. Blessed with an exquisite beauty and an appropriately ethereal singing voice, Leigh turns in an excellent performance that isn't just a mere aping of Julie Andrews (that, dear folks, is a gargantuan task that's next to impossible to match). As Bert, Mary's BFF (or, perhaps, much more), Dromard is so endearingly pleasant and effectively charming as the multi-occupational everyman that he quickly becomes the audience favorite. He's quite an energetic performer, too, dancing and singing as feverishly as the rest of the spirited cast—in full voice! Together, Dromard and Leigh's paired chemistry is believably sweet and totally adorable.

The rest of the cast are standouts as well. Mackintosh makes the most of his gruff characterization of Mr. Banks, while Wilson, attached with the less-showy role of Mrs. Banks, turns in a sympathetic solo in "Mrs. Banks." As household staffers Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay, Rachel Izen and Dennis Moench, respectively, bring lots of amusing comic relief, effectively making themselves more memorable than their peripheral presence may suggest. And though her character Miss Andrew is so jarringly introduced into the show, Smith's performance in the role is nothing short of amazing. Frightening yet fascinating at the same time, Smith's vocals penetrate with a ferociousness that I've never experienced in previous actors that have filled this role. Collectively, this ensemble is wonderfully infectious to watch, especially in the razzle-dazzled group numbers.

Though I absolutely applaud the creative team's wishes to produce something wholly fresh and mount a show that can stand on its own merits as a separate theatrical entity, the stage version of MARY POPPINS—for lack of a better phrase—needed a bit more... well, Disney-fication. A heaping spoonful of it would have been great. While the character of Mary Poppins may describe herself as "practically perfect in every way" the stage show itself, doesn't quite get there. In its noble quest to present a new show that combines classic and newer elements, the finished product feels too overstuffed, causing it to feel rushed, losing a bit of emotional resonance along the way.

Overall, the show is certainly an admirable undertaking. But as thoroughly enjoyable as it is—with some of the most spectacular singing and dancing and stagecraft, combined with the sort of Disney stage trickery one has come to expect from the studio's theatrical arm—MARY POPPINS' stage incarnation could have benefitted from a larger infusion of the original movie's charm and wit. Luckily, there's more to like in the show than to grouse about, so, ultimately, seeing the show recreated as a musical theater piece is still a satisfying, entertaining show to take in. And if the sight of Mary Poppins magically flying overhead doesn't trigger some of your own child-like wonder, then you best check for a heartbeat.


Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

All photos by Joan Marcus. From top: Steffanie Leigh as MARY POPPINS; Nicolas Dromard leaps as Bert; the 1st National Tour Cast tries to spell; Leigh on the rooftops.

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Performances of MARY POPPINS at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts continue through August 7, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. MARY POPPINS is a co-production of Disney Theatrical and Cameron Mackinstosh.

Ticket prices start at $22.50 and can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am).

Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For more information, please visit SCFTA.org or the show's official site at www.MaryPoppins.com



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