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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Now the musical stage adaptation of the Travers classic has finally flown across the Atlantic where The Lion King moved to another location so she could land in the New Amsterdam Theater. Gavin Lee, who created the role of Bert, Mary's fleet-footed, multi-taking friend (chimney sweep, artist) is on hand to help the American Nanny and cast make a smooth landing. Lee more than lives up to the praises he garnered in London.
And what about the new nanny? Ashley Brown's singing is very much in the Julie Andrews tradition. She dances expertly and energetically and her Mary Poppins oozes the sort of self-assurance that makes her singing "I'm Practically Perfect" totally convincing. She also scores high in the pretty and perky department. If her smile seems more a case of listening to a photographer urging her to "give a big smile and hold it" than the "slightly pleased expression" attributed to her character by Travers, chalk it up to the stepped-up Disneyfication of the Broadway production.
That heightened Disneyfication in which bright and cheerful rules caused a scene that had some London critics dub Mary "Scary Mary" to be de-scarified. This brightening also applies to the overall look of the show. Fortunately, the more sophisticated grisaille pallette isn't all gone. We still have the inventive "Jolly Holiday" park scene with its animated statues, the touching "Feed the Birds" number, the terrific black and white depiction of the bank where the Banks children's father (Daniel Jenkins) spends more time than with them and the show's crème-de-la-crème production number the "Step In Time " rooftop ballet by Bert and an ensemble of chimney sweeps.
That's not to say that the super bright, candy colored segments aren't dazzling. Bob Crowley's sets and costumes are truly supercalifragilistic. I dare you not to be bowled over by that three story Victorian house with its up and down moving third floor nursery or the outfits for the animated toy judges conjured up by Mary Poppins' "Temper, Temper" (One of several delightful songs added to the equally delightful movie songs). A stage filled to the brim with a cast of what often feels like hundreds, the elaborate scenic changes, the pyrotechnics that include dancing up and down a wall and, of course, flying, makes it easy to forgive a certain jumpiness resulting from this marriage of the movie's hokiness and Matthew Bourne's sophisticated choreographic sensibility.
The cast overall is exemplary— from the ensemble to the members of the Banks family— There are three sets of children who alternate as Jane and Michael Banks with Kathryn Faughnan and Henry Hodges proving themselves to be seasoned troupers at the performance I attended. Daniel Jenkins brings enough befuddled charm to the uptight father to make you understand why his wife (the l clarion voiced Rebecca Luker) fell in love with him to begin with. Not to be overlooked is the other nanny, the termagent who demonized Mr. Banks as a boy played with devilish glee by Ruth Gottschall (she also does a quick turn as Queen Victoria).
Ultimately, this Mary Poppins heaps on less spoonfuls of sugar than the movie, but saves the shovel for the eye-popping costumes, scenery and special effects. Despite the fact that the pyrotechnics overwhelm the more emotionally resonant magic of the book (books, actually — Travers wrote several sequels), the audience, young and old, walked out of the theater smiling and humming and their word of mouth is likely to sell tickets for years to come. With the book is still available (see links below) and for far less than tickets to the show, parents can give their children a chance to discover Mary Poppin's magic on the page as well as the stage at a minor additional expenditure.
For more plot details, see our review of Mary Poppins in London
Here are links to inexpensive paperback editions of the Travers book:
A Triple Dose of Mary Poppins: Three Enchanting Classics: Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, and Mary Poppins Opens the Door (Paperback)