At North Shore Music Theatre, Disney's beloved nanny doesn't quite get off the ground.
As far as Disney stage adaptations go, Mary Poppins is not, like its title character, "practically perfect in every way." It doesn't boast the craft of Beauty and the Beast or the artistry of The Lion King, but it does go down rather easy. Fans of the 1964 film will recognize portions of the stage adaptation, which features a book by Julian Fellowes and a handful of cloying songs added by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Although a hit both on Broadway and in the West End, the ample flaws of the piece are a bit more visible in North Shore Music Theatre's intimate, in-the-round production, directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill.
While the bones of the film's plot are still present, the most iconic moments have been shifted around and reimagined. (Some of these changes are based on the original stories by P.L. Travers.) Most regrettably, "Jolly Holiday" features, perplexingly, a statue that comes to life and dances a ballet; "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is performed, strangely, at something called a talking shop; and other classics like "Feed the Birds" and "Let's Go Fly a Kite" have been confusingly repurposed.
The show's new songs convolute things further. Though the talented Fellowes has written some genuine laughs into his book, the characters are woefully two-dimensional. The only one who seems fleshed out is Mrs. Banks, played here by the excellent Molly Garner. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins herself seems like a secondary character.
As Bert, Brad Bradley dances well, but he lacks his character's necessary charm. James Andrew Walsh is unconvincing as Mr. Banks in that his sternness seems forced. But Ellen Peterson is a comic delight as the housemaid Mrs. Brill, and Jake Ryan Flynn delivers a welcome stream of laughs as the precocious Michael. While Kerry Conte sings the role of Mary Poppins beautifully, she brings a cruel, icy edge to the kind-hearted nanny that is off-putting. It would be nice to see her warmth shine through every now and then.
Director Kevin Hill's staging is sometimes awkward. An entire scene – and musical number – is performed in an aisle so that a portion of the audience has to turn around in order to see what's going on. The frequent presence of stagehands and members of the crew in the aisles too often pulls the audience out of the action.
The awkwardness extends to what should be the most "magical" element of the show: the flying. When Mary Poppins is about to soar into the air, wires above the stage sag and bop up and down. We see her standing in an aisle being hooked up, and once she is airborne, her feet are never more than a few feet off the ground. The effect seems sillier when she lands and is unhooked right in front of our eyes. The production might have been more effective without a cumbersome attempt to make Mary Poppins levitate.
Hill's choreography doesn't quite cut the mustard either. "Jolly Holiday" is chaotic; "Step in Time," which should be a showstopper with Bradley, is an imprecise cacophony of stomping and slamming; and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" borrows too liberally from the Broadway choreography of Stephen Mear and Matthew Bourne.
This Mary Poppins shows a lot of ambition, but the production often buckles under its own weight. Still, as far as family-friendly summer diversions go, for kids Mary Poppins will go down like a spoonful of sugar. Despite the production's flaws, children will sit transfixed. At the performance I attended, they gasped and cheered, and at one point, one boy burst into tears. It's hard to argue with that.