Broadway Across America, Hobby Center
By JOHN DeMERS
As musical retreads from Walt Disney movies (a major genre on Broadway this past decade) go, Mary Poppins is practically perfect.
Yes, of course. That’s the magical London nanny’s famous description of herself, and who among us can’t hear the words pronounced by Julie Andrews in our heads – though she and the film’s creators felt no need to build a whole darn song around it. Truth is, the songs they did feel a need for – “Feed the Birds,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Step in Time” and of course “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – are the heart and soul of the current stage version. And they’ve never sounded better.
Still, by looking beyond the 1964 film to the books by P.L. Travers that began appearing in the 1930s, big-bucks producers Cameron Mackintosh and Disney have found enough new twists and turns to keep us guessing a little. While Mary herself played by Ashley Brown and Bert played by Gavin Lee, both touring directly from Broadway, remain as luminous as Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, the story’s namesake character has become snippier, more full of herself, perhaps simply weirder in a belovedly British sort of way. And the kids she nannies – Jane and Michael Banks, so cute and mostly cuddly in the movie – have become the sort of little terrors the Brits do so well. The kind, in short, who require someone like Mary Poppins to transform them.
Sadly, not one of the new songs crafted for the stage by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (of Honk! semi-fame) comes even close to the legacy of brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, who wrote for Mary Poppins and several other Disney hits. The new stuff is mostly reach-for-the-heavens, you-can-do-anything balderdash, sounding like an Army commercial but with a less catchy tune. But… they do fill in the blanks, as does some new, fade-into-the-woodwork dialogue.
Karl Kenzler brings special life to hard-working father George Banks, well-matched by Megan Osterhaus as wife Winifred. George in particular gets more reality in the musical than in the film, his overwork at the bank tied to an evil nanny he had as a child – who actually gets to show up here. On the other hand, the show’s creators give poor George one of the evening’s few utterly false notes, having him finally tell his bosses at the bank that from now on, “my family comes first.” To George Banks and virtually all men up until about, oh, April 17, 1968, working all day and all night meant his family came first. In lieu of beer and loose women. Or fishing. This is a discordantly contemporary phrase for a discordantly contemporary idea, one you won’t hear at the end of the film as George trundles wife and kids off to fly that metaphorical kite. In other words, kites fly much better before Dr. Phil gets ahold of them.
The touring production at the Hobby Center is lovely to look at, thanks to scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley and lighting design by Howard Harrison. Matthew Bourne’s choreography takes up where the movie left off, doing amazing things with dance to replace the mix of live action and animation that was so amazing in pre-CGI 1964. And the now-mandatory special effects – Mary flying above the audience like a sedate Peter Pan, Bert dancing up one wall, across the ceiling and down the other – delight us no matter how much we notice the cables.
In the end, there was nothing Mackintosh and Disney could do to make us forget the film. In fact, as they surely knew all along, the more we love the movie, the more we’ll love their practically perfect musical.