Reviewed by David Spencer
Well, I don't know that this stage re-working of P. L. Travers' indomitable nanny Mary Poppins, is, as the heroine would describe herself "practically perfect," but it is, on its own terms, just swell.
Those terms are that it is a hybrid affair, based somewhat on the Disney film, enough to capitalize on most (but not all) of the Sherman Brothers songs that have become an inextricable and expected part of Ms. Poppins' musical profile, and somewhat on the darker and more subversive set of seven young reader books in which the character and many of her supporting cast originated. Despite having a foot in each camp, and despite that each camp would seem tonally at odds with te other, the creative team seem to have struck a balance.
In part, this balance is maintained because this newly mounted stage version of Mary Poppins (by way of London, whence it originated) moves too fast to expose itself to much scrutiny. If you've ever toiled in the vineyards of TYA (theatre for young audiences), you know that quite often the desired strategy is to keep up a steady pace. Children are less tolerant of respites, sidebars and asides (at the very least, they have to be well earned to maintain interest), so you make your points and move on. Doesn't mean you have to rush, merely that you can't linger—and Mary Poppins the musical, much like Mary Poppins herself, will have none of that.
The minor drawback to this, where adult viewers are concerned, is that there's really no time to appreciate an emotional development, or to get too sentimental about relationships developing. Or even be bowled over by some neat bit of staging, SFX or choreography. Oh, to be sure, you get just enough time to let it register, as when Bert the dustman does a tapdance along the perimeter of the proscenium arch, but no sooner have you applauded and said wow than, come along [children's names] spit-spot.
Some years ago, it was the mandate of a songwriter I won't mention by name to monkey with Clark Gesner's score to You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, by way of a misguided director's Broadway "update." The results (which included two interpolated songs) were a horrible and vulgar violation of tone and intent, borne of a cynical view whose desire was to "improve" that which needed no improving. By contrast, new Poppins songwriters George Stites & Anthony Drewe and new Poppins librettist Julian Fellowes have augmented the signature Sherman Brothers numbers with taste and respect; never (so it seems) to "improve" them, but rather to augment their functionality and ability to integrate with a newly devised dramatic structure. Clearly everyone here is quite fond of both the books and the film, and if the project is a triumph of marketing it is also a labor of love.
Co-directors Richard Eyre and Matthew Bourne (the latter of whom is also co-choreographer with Stephen Mear) keep it all doing a "step in time" nicely, while marshalling the forces of a top design team and a cast whose leads seems as iconic to the stage version as Andrews and Van Dyke, et. al. are to the classic film.
Ashley Brown gets the enigma and perkiness of Mary Poppins just right, adding a dash of discreet sexiness that dare not speak its name. Gavin Lee created the role of Bert in London, and it's easy to see why he was brought over; there is a twinkle and a child-like enthusiasm behind his easy street-wisdom. The parents are assayed by Rebecca Luker and Daniel H. Jenkins with the layered assurance of seasoned pros who were once, themselves, ubiquitous in ing_nue and juvenile roles—and I assume all the children are fine, though the performance you attend determines which in the three alternating sets you may see.
If there's any genuine carp to be made about the show, it's in the kind of mild messaginess that has been grafted on. A faux Sherman Brothers number that tells us "Anything Can Happen (if you let it)" is simply too preachy (enough advice songs; after "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Supercali, etc." we don't need any more guidance on how to live), is reprised as the show's big finale and leaves a taste that requires a spoonful of sugar to eradicate. (My guess is, it was written to be in keeping with what was perceived as the Sherman Brothers imprimatur, but the authors misguidedly decided to emphasize a function already well-spoken-for as well as a style of wordplay, where merely the latter would have been sufficient.) And really, someone should have told the musical department that the short i in "it" is the most horrible sound to end on. (Oh, yes, they really do build to that, with ritard and crescendo: "Anything can haaaa-pennn ifff you lehhhht [grand pause here and then, big] Iiiiiiiiiiiiittt!")
Ah well. It's still a jolly holiday, and pretty much foolproof family fare. And like its namesake, should stick around just as long as it's needed...