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Mary Poppins

Despite its often mechanical qualities, this lavish musical will snatch the hearts and minds of children of all ages.

By New York City
Ashley Brown, Katherine Leigh Doherty, Alexander Scheitinger,
Gavin Lee, and company in Mary Poppins
(© Joan Marcus)
Ashley Brown, Katherine Leigh Doherty, Alexander Scheitinger,
Gavin Lee, and company in Mary Poppins
(© Joan Marcus)
One of the first-act production numbers in the production-number-heavy Mary Poppins, which is based on both the beloved 1964 film with a peppy score by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman and the original stories of P.L. Travers, is "Jolly Holiday." But the song, which takes some startling liberties with the beloved film number, is also the first hint that "jolly" is hardly the right word to apply to this new musical.

Nonetheless, Mary Poppins has been put together with such thoroughgoing determination and calculation by co-producers Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, librettist Julian Fellowes, supplementary songwriters Anthony Drewe and George Stiles, and choreographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear that it's indisputably effective in its monumental effort to snatch the hearts and minds of children of all ages. Effective as it may be, the show is also a gigantic machine. Every cog and wheel, including Bob Crowley's jolly-enough Victorian sets and costumes, is securely in place and well oiled. Indeed, Mary Poppins is reminiscent of a Swiss cuckoo clock that goes off precisely when and how it should. Where it might glow with humanity, it's too often mechanical, as if its primary materials are steel and wood rather than Travers' insights about British society.

Mary Poppins, as most people know, is a magical nanny who arrives to sort out troubled families; when all is "spit-spot," she ascends to the heavens with the help of a magic umbrella. With the aid of sometime chimney sweep Bert (Gavin Lee), as in the film, Mary (Ashley Brown) drops into the lives of preoccupied banker George Banks (Daniel Jenkins), his temperate wife Winifred (Rebecca Luker), and their disobedient children, Jane and Michael (played by Katherine Leigh Doherty and Matthew Gumley at the performance I attended).

Sadly, the show's stiffness begins with Brown's performance. Sometimes sounding like her silvery-voiced film predecessor Julie Andrews and confidently jutting forward an Andrews-like jaw, Brown sings clearly, dances crisply, and acts with authority; repeatedly ascending a staircase to the top-floor nursery, she makes sure that her arms are held tautly out from her sides with palms bent back. But Brown is off-putting in a way that Travers' no-nonsense figure never is. The reason is the permanent-press smile Brown wears. For the record, the illustrations in Travers' adored books never show Mary Poppins with more than a slightly pleased expression. But Brown's smile is the smile of someone trying to put something over on you, which may be all too emblematic of this whole affair.

Moreover, since the chop-chop nature of the show doesn't encourage high-profile individuality, reliable performers like Jenkins and Luker can't do more than go conscientiously through their paces. Worse, as luck would have it, those two are also handed some of the enhanced score's more pedestrian songs. Ruth Gottschall, however, is such a stitch -- in a Margaret Hamilton way -- as ghoulish nanny Miss Andrew that she not only steals the scenes she's in, but may have some observers wishing she were at the center of the musical. The other breath of life is young Gumley, a poker-faced tot who already knows how to toss off a laugh line.

Fortunately, many of the oh-so-many numbers have energy and imagination. The "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" romp, wherein the chorus repeatedly spells the damnable word in gestured unison, is goofy fun. The chimney sweeps' "Step in Time" is the enterprise's choreographic highlight -- as it was in the film -- and Lee leads the athletic tappers with the somewhat manufactured charm he honed in the London production.On the other hand, faces may go a bit funny during the supposed "Jolly Holiday" jollity which has a feature the flick didn't. Dancers dressed in silver nude-statue outfits cavort with a kind of sensuality/sexuality that worked beautifully with choreographer Bourne's Swan Lake but seems in questionable taste for a bring-the-kiddies show.

Still, the show also boasts several moments of bona fide theatrical magic that occur at the finish and won't be described here. But the audience reaction to them may be worth the lofty admission price. Rarely have so many faces lighted up so literally.

It's impossible to know how many parents shepherding their children to Mary Poppins read the Travers originals aloud to them at bedtime. For what it's worth, Travers regarded Mary Poppins as a wily and disarming disciplinarian. Disney and Mackintosh seem to regard her as a cash register that'll keep ringing for a long time.


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