“I’m practically perfect, in every way,” Mary Poppins sings proudly, while unpacking in the children’s nursery. It’s what her tape measure said, so it must be true, right?
Almost. Audience members, note the word practically. It is a key one when describing the goals of this production. Filled with loud music, bright costumes and dazzling special effects, it strives to remain loyal to the film and book that serve as its inspiration, while still surpassing it and becoming its own theatrical production. It tries to be cheerful and deep, bright and dark, amusing and educational.
And oh, does it try. Loyalists to the movie will be pleased with the faithful adaptation that moved to the stage. Fans of the original book will also be satisfied with the darker elements of the story that have been included. But there’s still one slight problem.
And that problem is with the title character. As the famous nanny, following Julie Andrews’ rendition of her in the film production, Ashley Brown has a large shoes to fill. Sadly, she fails to fill them. As the charming caregiver, soaring into Cherry Tree Lane to help a troubled family, she simply isn’t that likeable. She looks the part – carrying herself upright and forthright, with every button buttoned and every stitch in place. Her hat is never cooked, and her shoes are always tied. She sounds like Mary Poppins, with her note-perfect soprano soaring through the theatre. But she simply does not fit the part. Part of Mary’s magic was that she was firm and fair, but also loveable. She also brings magic, compassion and – dare I say it? – love. At least, she should. The lines of the script say that she does, but the actors fail to carry that out onstage. This Mary is too stern and too strict, and it is difficult to see how she could win the hearts of these audaciously adorable children.
However, the “practically” of the key phrase could be dropped when applying to Brown’s co-star. Gavin Lee’s Bert, the happy-go-lucky narrator of the show and friend to Mary Poppins, effortlessly steals stage in every scene that he is in. It is difficult to imagine a more thorough, entertaining and charming performance than the one that Gavin gives in this show. His boyish smile, charming British accent and undeniable dance skills combine to create an authentic character out of what could have been merely a rendition of Dick Van Dyke’s performance in the film. When he quite casually scales the side of the stage and tap-dances while suspended upside down above the company of chimney sweeps, it is nothing short of breathtaking.
He even outshines his costar – although that wouldn’t be considered gentlemanly. When Brown and Gavin perform together – which they do quite often – it is difficult to stop watching him. During the “Jolly Holiday” sequence, when Mary, Bert, Jane and Michael, travel into a drawing that Bert had sketched, Bert’s cheerful energy exudes over Mary’s prim dance steps. A flirtation between the two is hinted at throughout the skit, and while his boyish attentions to her are quite endearing, it is difficult to ascertain exactly why he is so besotted with the British nanny.
As Jane and Michael, Katherine Leigh Doherty and Matthew Gumley provide endearingly honest performances. Doherty’s Jane is a sassy six year old, while, as Michael, Gumley provides a fresh-faced perspective, delivering delightfully comedic lines with appropriately deadpan humor. “Out of the mouths of babes,” would most certainly apply to this precocious one.
The background to the story is deepened in this production, delving into the family life of Cherry Tree Lane. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Banks is explained further, giving the mother the background of being an actress and struggling to fill the role of a proper society wife. Rebecca Luker is sadly underused in this role, giving what depth she can to her character with her brief solo moments. Daniel Jenkins is a different case, as the uptight banker, who relies on “precision and order,” to get through his days. It is difficult to feel sympathy for this man who has none of his own to spare, until we are introduced to his childhood, including his old nanny – otherwise known as “The Terror!” – Miss Andrews, played in a scene-stealing turn by Ruth Gottschall. (Watch for what Jon Stewart might gleefully call “Nanny Thunderdome” in Act II, when Miss Andrews and Miss Poppins face off in the Bank’s foyer). As the sharp-tongued maid and dim-witted servant, Jane Carr and Mark Price provide some necessary comedic relief.
What is lacking in the performances struggled to be compensated for in the technical aspects of the show. It is obvious no expense was spared. The sets are nothing short of stunning, with transitions between the interior of the Banks’ house, which resembles an ornate dollhouse to the dark and misty park of London to the magical land of the “jolly holiday” with Mary.
Its faults not withstanding, Mary Poppins still delivers a large-scale, bright and bouncy musical production. Somewhere in this three-hour spectacle, there is something that is supposed to please everyone, with large company numbers such as “Supercalifragilistecexpialidocous” and “Step In Time,” as well as sweetly simple ones like, “Feed the Birds.” And of course, there is required motivational Disney number, which, this time around, is titled “Anything Can Happen If You Let It.” It’s not Disney’s finest work, with several cringe-inducing lines like, “Jelly isn’t jelly till you set it,” but that is hard to focus on while watching the cast soar through the sky as they sing it.
“I love magic!” my friend said, as the show ended and, holding her umbrella, Mary sailed over the audience, up above the mezzanine and disappearing into the ceiling. After three hours of it, complete with a spoonful of sugar, it was difficult to disagree.