"Mary Poppins" touched down on Broadway last night, toting a carpet bag that was filled to the brim with new songs, colorful sets & costumes as well as eye-popping special effects.
Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus
Of course, the big question is: Will Disney purists (As well as those millions of baby boomers who grew up loving the 1964 film) actually embrace this Disney Theatrical / Cameron Mackintosh co-production? Which -- while it makes use of some of the songs that Richard & Robert Sherman wrote for that Academy-Award winning motion picture -- draws most of its inspiration from P.L. Travers' books.
Based on what I saw this past Wednesday night at the New Amsterdam Theatre, Mackintosh & the Mouse have nothing to worry about. The audiences that I saw this show with just ate "Mary Poppins" up. They were charmed from the very start of the show -- when Bert (Gavin Lee) first sticks his head up out of a chimney and sings "Chim Chim Cher-ee" -- right through to the finale. When Mary Poppins (Ashley Brown) actually flies out over the orchestra section of the theater and then floats up toward the balcony.
There are some really supercalifragilisticexpialidocious moments in this new musical. Take -- for example -- the sequence where virtually the entire company gathers on stage to sing, dance & spell that famous tongue twister. But is "Mary Poppins" really (as the new song title says) "Practically Perfect"? To be honest, no.
(L to R) Ashley Brown as 'Mary Poppins,' Katherine Leigh Doherty as 'Jane Bank,'Alexander Scheitinger as 'Michael Banks,' Gavin Lee as 'Bert' and the originalBroadway company of MARY POPPINS at the New Amsterdam TheatreCopyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus
The main problem with this new stage version of "Mary Poppins" is that the book that Julian Fellowes wrote for the show too closely follows the style & feel of the original P.L. Travers stories. As a result, this musical tends to be very episodic. Which means that colorful characters like Neleus (Brian Letendre) the talking statue, Mrs. Corry (Janelle Anne Robinson) the age-old woman who runs the Talking Shop and Miss Andrew (Ruth Gottschall), Mr. Banks' fearsome first nanny, are constantly being introduced. Only to then basically drop from sight once their musical number is done.
"So what's so bad about that?," you ask. Well, to be honest, it cuts into the amount of stage time that the title character gets. Given that the main focus of this new musical has been shifted away from Mary Poppins' interaction with Jane & Michael (FYI: These particular roles are triple cast. With Katherine Leigh Doherty, Kathryn Faughnan & Delaney Moro playing Jane, while Matthew Gumley, Henry Hodges & Alexander Scheitinger portray Michael) to Mr. Banks' (Daniel Jenkins) career problems and Mrs. Banks' (Rebecca Luker) concerns that she's doing a poor job as a wife & a mother ... Well, it sometimes feels as though Mary Poppins is only a supporting character in the show that bears her name.
Ashley Brown as 'Mary Poppins' in the Broadway Production of MARY POPPINS at the New Amsterdam TheatreCopyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus
Which is a shame. Given that -- every time that Ashley Brown gets the chance to stand in the spotlight -- the effect is ... Well, magical. This young lady has a beautiful singing voice. She dances well. And -- as her flying sequences in this show clearly demonstrate -- Ms. Brown is basically fearless. Which makes her a lot of fun to watch on stage.
By the way, Ashley's take on Mary is not a carbon copy of Julie Andrews' portrayal of this character. Brown's version of the world's most famous nanny is both mysterious & mischievous. Watching this performer move through No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane (Particularly the way Mary charges upstairs), it's clear that Brown's Poppins is enjoying the fact that she's turning the entire Banks household upside down.
Speaking of upside down: While the movie's "I Love to Laugh" number didn't make it into this musical, Gavin Lee does pay tribute to Uncle Albert as part of "Step in Time." Which has Bert (thanks to some simply amazing wire work) first striding up the proscenium and then tap-dancing on the ceiling.
Gavin Lee (center in red shirt) as 'Bert' and the original Broadway cast of MARY POPPINS at the New Amsterdam Theatre Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus
If I really had to choose my favorite moment from this new musical ... I'd honestly be torn between "Anything Can Happen" (Which is one of the new numbers that George Stiles & Anthony Drewe wrote for the stage version of "Mary Poppins." Which actually borrows an idea from Travers' 1943 book, "Mary Poppins Opens the Door," and has virtually the entire cast of characters that we've met over the course of this musical magically coming together to dance with the title character) and "Jolly Holiday."
Just like it was in the original Disney film, "Jolly Holiday" is one of the real highlights of "Mary Poppins." Though there (sadly) are no dancing penguins in the stage version of this number, I promise that you won't miss those flightless birds.
Thanks to Matthew Bourne's choreography and Bob Crowley's scenic design, a cold, grey English park first undergoes a technicolor transformation. Then statues come to life and Queen Victoria herself drops by to go dancing with Mary, Bert, Jane & Michael. "Jolly Holiday" just builds & builds & builds. Which makes it a truly memorable & magic moment in this new musical.
Speaking of magic ... Jim Steinmeyer has contributed several amazing illusions to this show. One of which allows Mary to unpack her carpet bag just as she did in the 1964 film, while the other allows a kitchen to completely destroy itself, then magically reassemble as Ms. Poppins sings "A Spoonful of Sugar."
And let's not forget about the show's incredible sets, which move us from the steps of St. Paul to the children's nursery to the Bank of England all in the blink of an eye. The combination of all the great talent on stage as well as this new musical's first class production values make "Mary Poppins" a truly memorable night at the theater.
Copyright 2006 Disney / CML
So, okay. Disney Theatrical & Cameron Mackintosh's co-production may not be practically perfect in every way. It's still a very fun show. Which is why you should definitely check out the Broadway version of "Mary Poppins" the next time you're in NYC.
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