Posted by Spencer Koch | Posted in Entertainment Guide | Posted on 19-02-2011
The show, scripted by Julian Fellowes (PBS’ recent “Downton Abbey”), borrows the basics of the movie plot about how young Jane and Michael Banks’ lives and family are transformed by a parrot-umbrella-toting nanny who can fly and pull furniture out of her bottomless carpet bag. Then it mixes in pieces of various Poppins books and tells its own story. Most of the movie’s famed songs are still here, but some are slightly rewritten and there are also new tunes, characters and adventures.
If You Go
What: “Mary Poppins”
Written by: Julian Fellowes, with music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with additional music and lyrics and new songs by George Stiles and Antony Drewe
When: Through March 20
Where: Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St.
Reservations: 1-866-551-7469 or www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Boston
So, for lovers of the film, goodbye laughing Uncle Albert. Goodbye dancing penguins. Hello to a horrific former nanny (to explain why the children’s banker father, George, is so sour). Hello, statuary come to life.
The musical still offers a magical journey with some wondrous theatrical moments and a story with lovable characters that could engage various ages. Some of the best new material is the conversation shop where you can buy letters – kicking off a wonderfully choreographed
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – and the change of mother Winifred from a dim suffragette to a loving mother who’s been trying to jettison social conventions and simply create a happy family.
Some new material bloats the show, though, especially a somewhat disturbing number about toys come to life and the extended sequence with the evil nanny (though Q. Smith’s towering portrayal and voice are terrific). The ending is also drawn out so long that some of the wonder is lost and the patience of younger theater-goers already sitting there for nearly three hours will likely be tested.
A huge plus for the production is the stunning visuals, with extraordinary lighting and set design (publicity notes say it takes more than two days to load the show into a theater). The Banks home in Edwardian London is like a working dollhouse that folds open in different pieces, and spins and glides. Projections create a dizzying perspective for the massive lobby where Mr. Banks works, plus a grand cathedral with flying birds for the achingly beautiful “Feed the Birds.” It is that design that truly sets the magical tone.
Then the outstanding cast brings it all alive and adds the emotional punch to a story that boils down to parents and children simply needing to recognize and appreciate each others’ importance. Steffanie Leigh is a no-nonsense yet warm Mary, melodically leading the fun in classic movie costume as she shares her life lessons (only getting preachy with the “Playing the Game” giant-toys number). Nicolas Dromard is winning as genial chimney sweep Bert, the narrator and chief dancer who leads the sublime “Step in Time” number and takes on its gravity-defying climax.
At Friday night’s opening, Paige Simunovich and Cade Canon Ball were ideal as Jane and Michael, with Cade showing spot-on comic timing. As George, Michael Dean Morgan makes a convincing redemption from impatient authoritarian to grateful father, and Blythe Wilson is so affecting as Winifred that she becomes the story’s and family’s emotional heart.
The most show-stopping numbers in this stage version remain the Sherman brothers’ Oscar-winning tunes, but Winifred’s “Becoming Mrs. Banks” is one of the best additions to the score. Also welcome is “Practically Perfect,” as Mary Poppins explains her qualifications. It would be tidy to say that this title describes this theatrical adaptation, but the show doesn’t quite get there. There is much to enjoy and embrace, but this version ultimately ends up trying too hard.