Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Muddled Magic - Mary Poppins: The Musical

Mary Poppins
Based on stories by P.L. Travers & the 1964 Walt Disney film; co-created by Cameron Mackintosh. Music & lyrics by Richard and Robert Shermans, plus new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe; book by Julian Fellowes.Directed by Richard Eyre
Choreography by Matthew Bourne
At the Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, through April 4

By Rebecca Jessup
Mary Poppins, as everyone knows, is a nanny with mysterious powers. In the very early 20th century, she appears in the Banks family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, where Mr. Banks (Laird Mackintosh) is a regimented banker with no time for family life. His wife (Blythe Wilson) is overwhelmed and largely ignored. The two children, Jane (Katie Balen/Bailey Grey) and Michael (Bryce Baldwin/Carter Thomas), are so wildly undisciplined that they’ve driven away a string of nannies. The household is run by the shrill housekeeper, Mrs. Brill (the memorable Rachel Izen), impeded by the inept handyman Robertson Ay (Dennis Moench).
Most audience members will fondly remember the Disney movie; fewer are familiar with the original books by P.L. Travers. For those of us who first knew Mary Poppins from the books, the Disney version was saccharine, missing the original texture. The stage musical promised an effort to regain some of the depth and substance of the books. This worthy goal fails because it is undertaken not radically, in the structure of the story, but superficially, by adding darker, unhappier fragments based on characters and events from the books. The result is an implausible mix of giddy fun and fearful threats, with a happy ending.

When Mary Poppins (Caroline Sheen) enters the children’s lives, she introduces them to magic, music, fantasy, dancing statues in the park. Their lives are suddenly a great deal more fun, so they love her and and behave. But there is no coherent theme, no central conflict, no deeper understanding achieved; the villainous Miss Andrews, a character who descends on the family in the second act, is driven away (oh, thank heavens!) sheerly by the magic of Mary Poppins. At one point, Mary abruptly leaves the household, and in the next act she returns. She moralizes that there are things the family must do on their own, but it is far from clear what these things are, whether they are achieved or by whom, or why Mary comes back when she does.

The production is quite extraordinary, and the sets, cast, dances and costumes are well worth seeing. Children over 6 will love it. The three-story Banks house is a wonder of design and construction, as is the London skyline where the large production number “Chim Chim Cher-ee” takes place. Most of the favorite Disney songs ring out, along with a few new ones written for the stage. Bert (Gavin Lee), the chimneysweep narrator, is as affable and limber as Dick Van Dyke, and performs one of the show’s two thrilling stage tricks by marching up the side of the proscenium arch, tap-dancing across the top (hanging upside down) and marching down the other side. Sheen, playing Mary, performs the other when she sails across the theater over the heads of the audience. She turns in a talented performance, winning and tuneful—but she can’t make up for the inherent ambiguity in her role as written. The strongest voice and character belong to Miss Andrew (Ellen Harvey), the terrifying nanny from Mr. Banks’s childhood. She has a powerful, operatic voice that she uses with great skill to evoke menace and malice. The other menace arises from Jane and Michael’s toys, which come to life to express their outrage at the careless way the children treat them.

In the end, Mr. Banks becomes a better husband and father, the family is happy, and all seem set to make their way without further magical intervention. If there were a lesson to take away, it could only be that having someone with occult powers sweep into your life will make everything all right. Or that an extremely expensive production (hardly) covers up a muddled story line.

Rebecca Jessup ( is a freelance writer and Latin teacher.

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