There are few tales more timeless than Mary Poppins. Disney cemented the umbrella flying nanny into the national consciousness with the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. The film arose from the children’s book series by P.L. Travers. Mary Poppins cropped up on the West End stage in 2004 only to get a Broadway transfer two years later. After a successful seven-year run at the New Amsterdam Theatre, Mary Poppins closed last month to make room for the anticipated upcoming Disney production Aladdin.
Just because Mary Poppins has left Broadway doesn’t mean the wind has blown away your chance to see the Disney classic on stage. Mary Poppins is currently touring North America, bringing the British lass to theaters across the country. This week, Mary prepares her spoonful of sugar for Atlanta audiences as she plays the Fox Theatre through Sunday. Mary Poppins marks the final showing in Theater of the Stars 60th anniversary season.
I’ll admit that I haven’t seen the Disney film since I was a wee lad. Those infectious songs are still stuck in my head a lifetime later and the collective Andrews, Van Dyke’s performance pretty much define Mary Poppins for me. Can the stage version hope to match the incredibly high bar the film-version set?
We open with Michael and Jane terrorizing another nanny to the point of resignation. Their tight-laced, banker father, George, is at his wits end with the undisciplined children. He is ready to put an ad in the Times for a new nanny when the kids suggest he use the advertisement they wrote. After a quick read, he rips up the nonsense and deposits the pieces in the fireplace where they quickly get swept up the chimney. No more than a couple minutes later, Mary Poppins comes calling, inquiring about the open position she’d read about — torn letter magically pieced back together in her hand. She is hired on the spot.
At first, the children are skeptical of this new nanny, but they quickly find out that she’s not like the rest. She pulls hat racks out of her seemingly empty travel bag. She somehow makes park statues come to life. She’s always cheery and upbeat. She has a peculiar friend named Bert who is a street artist, chimney sweep and just about anything else that suits him at the moment. Ms. Poppins melts the children’s walls, and they are captivated by her magical charm and mystical ways.
Mary Poppins told Mrs. Banks (mother to Michael and Jane) that she’d only stay with the family while she was needed. It was an odd statement on the surface, but Mrs. Banks wasn’t exactly holding the cards to be able to dictate terms. As the children flourished under Mary, their home life was crumbling around them. George gets put on leave from the bank for passing on a deal that would have netted the institution millions. A swift firing seems imminent. George grows more cranky by the day and lashes out at the children. Mary, indeed, leaves as she had promised, and George’s nanny from his youth comes to straighten out the brood. Will the children survive The Holy Terror? Why has Mary abandoned them? Will the Banks family be forced to live on the streets?
Disney is normally known for their lavish set designs and bombastic production values. When you have a studio with as deep of pockets as the mouse, you expect nothing short of phenomenal. Mary Poppins falls short in this regard. The set designs were rather pedestrian. It was clever how they basically folded the house up to transition from inside to the park. Maybe being set in 1910 London dictated that the surroundings be more drab and subdued, but I felt this element of the production lacking.
Madeline Trumble and Con O’Shea-Creal take on the starring roles of Mary and Bert. Both actors were solid in their portrayals, but its tough not to look at them and not hold them up to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Its admittedly not a fair comparison, but its the natural frame of reference you gravitate to. The choreography was interesting. Mary Poppins, of course, comes and goes via her umbrella so hoists wire her away for a quick exit in the rafters when necessary. There is one very cool rooftop scene where Bert walks the walls and then the ceiling of the stage while never missing a beat in dance or song.
The first half of the story felt a bit disjointed and seemed to fail to connect with the audience in a meaningful way. Too much composing the story and not enough character development, perhaps? The musical did salvage things after intermission, fleshing out the characters and their relationships with one another.
Overall, it was a quality production that had its healthy helping of flaws. Fair or not, its hard not to see the play through the lens of the Disney film. When you do, it just doesn’t measure up. It doesn’t offer us anything new to this timeless tale, doesn’t take advantage of the features of the stage and it fails to inspire which is what Mary Poppins should do. This musical is clearly geared for the children yet it doesn’t offer the over-the-top characters like Beauty and the Beast to really engage them.
I’m not saying don’t see the musical because there are elements it does well. You just need to reset your expectations coming in to the theatre. No actors will ever surpass the timeless Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. No stage production can quite capture the magic like the film did.
For those looking to get a little value, Mary Poppins has partnered with the AJC to offer half price tickets on select seating for tonight’s show (April 3). Just enter the promo code AJC to find available seating.
Author: Mark Runyon