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Review: ‘Mary Poppins’ dazzling, but she’s hard to like

Thursday, October 4, 2012
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— Childlike innocence and imaginative power is a recurring theme within the world of P.L. Travers’ magical nanny “Mary Poppins.” Producer Cameron Mackintosh, along with millions of the rest of us, was captivated by Walt Disney’s transmutation of that enchantress as she whisked away fear and worry with a tea party on the ceiling, jumped and ambled away into the land of chalk drawings and high-kicked across the rooftops and chimney’s of London’s East End.

Mackintosh has harnessed the theatrical creativity of the crème de la crème of the British theater along with some of the songs from the Disney film and has woven it into a visual knockout of a production that is nothing short of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But while the show is pleasing to the eye, dramatically it’s a bit dociousaliexpiisticfragilcalirupus.

As created in 1934 by Travers, Mary Poppins is a dark storybook myth. More Grimm than glad, she bobs and weaves through eight volumes, never revealing a bit of who she is, where she comes from or why she truly cares. Hey, who doesn’t like a puzzle and a bit of mystery in a dame? She is full of magic, keen insight and has a carpetbag full of fun. She seems a perfect companion.

‘Mary Poppins’

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: Through Oct. 7

HOW MUCH: $70-$20

MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org

Not sympathetic

But Mary is also somewhat rude, remarkably self-involved and seldom sentimental — traits one would not necessarily want in a friend or protector, let alone a titular character in a multimillion-dollar musical.

Caring about a character that lacks tangible warmth (or a discernible personality), no matter how well she sings and dances, to say the least, is hard.

In the film, rightly or wrongly, Walt Disney softened Mary’s abrasive demeanor with a warm smile and disarming twinkle. But on stage, Mackintosh has moved his take on the tale back to the true spirit of the books, seeking to combine the more Edwardian-android Nanny Mary that Travers created with the softer Disney plush toy. Mackintosh’s effort is altruistic and noble, but dramatically his product completely stalls, making one understand why the brilliantly ironic Sherman Brothers song “Stay Awake” has been excised.

Mary Poppins still sings and dances like a dream (it is a technically winning performance by Madeline Trumble), but spending time with Mary is less of a jolly holiday than it has been in the past. It is an odd situation — a great performance by a talented young actress — but you don’t care a whit about her character.

Entertaining characters

Mary does have very entertaining friends that she visits who certainly know how to party and sell a musical number. The trip to Mrs. Corry’s (Tonya Thompson), the magic sweet shop that sells alphabet letters and conversation, proves especially super — “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” actually.

The frenzy whooped up by choreographer Matthew Bourne’s energetic dance moves are hysterical fun, leaving everyone panting and breathless. Bert (an affable Con O’Shea-Creal), man-of–all-trades and master of fun, gallantly escorts Mary and brood through the park on a “Jolly Holiday” as they dodge the dancing statues, and later in Act 2 whips up the sweeps on the rooftops with the tap happy “Step in Time.”

But, again, you cannot get emotionally invested in any of them, except one. The reason Karen Murphy’s holy terror of a nanny, Miss Andrew, is so memorable is that aside from being an excellent actress, she has the good fortune of being handed a well-written character to play. If only the authors had offered this same courtesy to the other actors.

New songs

The new musical material offered up by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to The Sherman Brothers’ iconic score, has little to sing about but thankfully doesn’t bury what we all came to hear. The small lyrical punch-ups added here and there don’t offend or glare, but offering Mrs. Banks a self-discovery song (with reprises) does little to further interest in a character, although it does cover a set change or two.

Bob Crowley’s set is a stunning exercise in simplicity. From the opening moments where the Bankses’ Cherry Tree Lane home pops open like a storybook to the nonstop color punches that crowd “Jolly Holiday” to the eye-bending scenic perspective at the bank, Crowley’s expert mastery never tires. The costumes and lighting keenly coordinate, making this production more than extraordinary.

Running two hours and 40 minutes, the show is long, leaving many in the audience (young and old) to fidget and fuss. There is plenty to like in this flash, bang, wallop of a merry musical, but it is, sadly, not quite the jolly holiday of our youth.

 
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