Friday, December 16, 2011

Mary Poppins: The Musical

The story of super nanny Mary Poppins has been around since 1934 when P.L. Travers wrote the original book.  Since then it has transformed into a Walt Disney movie (1964) starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and now a Broadway musical.  As a side note, Julie Andrews had not done a movie before Mary Poppins as her career had been on the stage.  She was reluctant to take the role.  However after losing the part of Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn, the role Andrews originated on the stage, she consented.  Come Academy Award time her choice was vindicated as she won the best actress Oscar for Mary over Hepburn.  The most recent incarnation combines elements from both the movie and the book into a Broadway musical, which is currently on tour in Toronto.

Ashley Brown as Mary
I went in to the show with high expectations, particularly for whoever had the role Mary Poppins having heard Ashley Brown (the originator of the role on Broadway) in several other symphony concerts.  In this case I was not disappointed, Rachel Wallace was a great Mary.  Neither was I unsatisfied with Bert (Nicolas Dromard), George Banks (Laird Mackintosh, who also played the role on Broadway and back in the day was Raoul in the Toronto Phantom of the Opera), Winifred Banks (Elizabeth Broadhurst), or the ensemble.  The personalities of the children were much more obnoxious than in the movie.  Perhaps this was to further the transition the entire Banks family undergoes.  Add a fast speaking tempo and an annoying whine to a high pitch young girls voice, on top of an English accent, and Jane (Annie Baltic) was quite often difficult to understand.  I didn't have quite the same problem with Michael (Reese Sebastian Diaz), although he had fewer lines.

17 Cherry Tree Lane interior
(Photo Joan Marcus)
The set (designed by Bob Crowley) for 17 Cherry tree Lane was pretty nifty.  It folded open at the front in the fashion of a dolls house and recalled to mind the opening of several Disney fairy tale animated films which used the turning of storybook pages.  The front view was the main room, and included a staircase which Mary magically slid up.  Turning the house around revealed the kitchen.  To move to the nursery the roof lowered to the stage.  By maintaining the scale of the house, this was the smallest set and gave the nursery a cramped feel.  The advantage was when the action moved to the roof, it opened up a great expanse for the sky, and dancing over rooftops.

Special effects weren't overdone and were positioned to enhance the story, not just act as gimmicks.  This included the flying, definitely a necessity in Mary Poppins, but was limited to Mary, kites, and Bert tap dancing across the stage proscenium.

Supercalifragisticexpialidocious (
I would be remiss to not address the music.  Most of the Sherman brothers' songs from the movie were included ("Chim Chim Cher-ee", "The Perfect Nanny", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "A Man Has Dreams", "Feed the Birds", "Lets Go Fly a Kite" etc.) although often with altered lyrics to fit different plot situations.  "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" for example occurred in a shop of words rather than a sidewalk painting horse race.  Enhancements here included the addition of a whole theme which allowed an entire dance number to unfold around the premise of spelling this word with 18 consonants and 16 vowels.
LHS: youtube RHS: Rachel Wallace and Nicolas Dromard as Mary and Bert
"Step in Time" which had Bert and the chimney sweeps tap dancing over the London rooftops was also retained from the movie to fantastic effect.  The beginning slow tempo with silhouetted sweeps against chimneys (especially the one who was balancing on one foot while holding his broom) was eye-catching!  Oh, to be able to tap like that.

Laird Mackintosh, Blythe Wilson as 
Mr. & Mrs. Banks
The additions of "Practically Perfect" as a solo for Mary, "Anything Can Happen" and "Being Mrs. Banks" slipped into the theme of the Disney canon as if they'd been there forever.  I liked the tighter story line with Mr. and Mrs. Banks having some clear character development in addition to the children. Bert acting as a narrator worked well and gave him some fun moments, like the opening of the second act where he "paints" on the curtain.  His character is so sweet (or maybe the actor who plays him is part of the charm as well).  At one point Mary gives him a kiss on the cheek.  A kiss he returns at the curtain call.

Steffanie Leigh & Nicolas Dromard
(Photo Joan Marcus)
One disappointment was that the orchestra pit was covered :(  All that could be seen was the conductor.  But that's hardly the reason one goes to a musical, and if this one continues to be as popular as it is, maybe there will be a return visit to Toronto at some point.  For an entertaining and enjoyable evening with foot tapping songs and even a message behind the magic, it is practically perfect!

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