Hold on to your umbrellas, for "Mary Poppins" has just flown into town and landed at The Academy of Music for a brief sojourn, just like the practically perfect nanny, from now until April 17th. But hang on to your hats, this is a new Mary Poppins! It is an amalgam of the 1964 Disney film (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) and the original stories by P. L. Travers.
If you were ever wondering why it took 42 years for this perfect film to become a Broadway musical, it was because Ms. Travers was not happy with what Hollywood did to her stories. Therefore, the creators and new co-creators went back to the original source material (eight Mary Poppins books) in an effort to keep the author happy. Then of course they had to keep Disney happy too in order to procure the rights -- quite a balancing act. Thus there are seven brand new songs, new configurations of old ones, new characters and charming new adventures. The story core remains the same: George and Winifred Banks are parents who are so involved with their own lives that they don't know how to give their children, Jane and Michael, the attention, time and affection that they truly need and crave. However, the characters of the parents have been expanded and Jane and Michael are portrayed as much brattier in this stage version (which is closer to the children in the books) than in the film.
So there are statues that come to life, chimney sweeps with funny brooms and ultra coordinated buskers who slap, tap, wiggle and jump to the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" - a big word that is turned into a big children's word game song. The choreography by Matthew Bourne is outstanding and this ensemble of dancers gets to show off their tap, their modern and their balletic abilities to great advantage. The biggest dance number of course is "Step in Time" and it does not disappoint. There are also beautiful stage pictures that director, Richard Eyre has created that evoke some of the cinematic images that we remember - such as the chimney sweeps silhouetted against the London skyline.
We are first introduced to the evening's proceedings by the uber talented Nicolas Dromard as Bert, who though he doesn't get to commune with Penguins, still sings, dances, charms, walks on walls and dances on ceilings. What's not to like? Steffanie Leigh as Mary Poppins, lovely of voice and countenance, nimble of foot and flying with the greatest of ease is "practically perfect". She is a magical character and therefore not one of us earthly creatures. As the character is written, she is prim, proper, stern and fair and Ms Leigh plays her thusly. (But I personally would have liked to see a few chinks in her emotional armor). Michael Dean Morgan is quite endearing as George Banks the stuffy banker who rediscovers his childhood and Blythe Wilson gives a very tender performance as Winifred his wife. It is without doubt the most moving song and the most emotional moment in the show when Janet MacEwen as the Bird Woman sings, "Feed the Birds". Ms. MacEwen is simply stellar and if it doesn't make you bring out your handkerchief then please seek therapeutic help immediately. I am misting up all over again as I sit at my computer reliving that moment. It is also a great credit to the song itself that it can express such a sweet and simple sentiment that we can always respond to - kindness. There are other worthy performances: the new character of Mrs. Corry who runs a magical sweet shop played by Michelle White with an adorable Jamaican accent, sweet voice and effusive personality and "the Holy Terror", Miss Andrew (Q. Smith) George's tyrannical nanny when he was a boy. With her overemphasized diction, her stratospheric vocal range and over the top sneer, Ms. Smith resembles a wicked witch stuffed into a nanny's uniform - frighteningly funny.
The costumes, sets and special effects in themselves are quite magical. There are scrims that people write on that drop and fall away, houses that open and close like story books and a backdrop (or projection couldn't tell) of a bank that is simply awe inspiring.
If you go, don't expect to see a carbon copy of the movie. Not all the original songs made the cut. In fact, one of my favorites, "Sister Suffragette", was left on the cutting room floor. I regret that they chose to change the mother's character from a spunky fighter for women's votes to an insecure woman who yearns to be a better wife! But I realize that the writers wanted to give her character more of an arc and make her more sympathetic. And this might have been closer to the original character from the books. Hey, who am I to quibble with success? Still, I recited a verse of the lyrics along with a fellow reviewer as we left the theater. It just goes to show you how much "Mary Poppins" has been absorbed into our collective consciousness. Like the "Wizard of Oz" it's become part of our vernacular.
Tickets for Mary Poppins start at $20 and can be purchased by calling 215-731-3333, online at www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway, or at the Kimmel Center Box Office at Broad & Spruce Streets, open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p. m., or at the Academy of Music Box Office open during performances only.