The movie Saving Mr. Banks told us there is more to Mary Poppins than a flying nanny with an umbrella. Banks revealed that the much-loved 1964 movie was the unlikely fusion of two warring aesthetics: author P.L. Travers, a querulous, left-wing theosophist, and Walt Disney, the smiling corporate master of cinema confection.
But a third personality enters to shape the stage musical version of Mary Poppins, which opened in London in 2004, became a hit on Broadway in 2006 and is the season opener at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse (through July 2). Ace scenarist Julian Fellowes, the man who created Downton Abbey, saves the most revered songs from the 1964 movie, yet he also cuts much of the syrup and restores some of the tensions from the Travers books. The family fun is still there in abundance, but it arrives with more snap.
The first thing we notice about the stage version is that the children, Jane (Shannon Beel) and Michael (Séamus Finnian Gailor), are a bit naughtier, and the parents, George Banks (Patrick Oliver Jones) and Winifred (Lucy Horton), don’t seem fully in charge. The household needs some order as well as a new nanny when the previous one, Katie Nanna (Molly Jean Blodgett), stomps out. Even before a new notice can be posted, the securely self-possessed Mary Poppins (magnificent Elizabeth Earley), appears. She dictates the terms of her employment, telling the Banks family they must meet the standards of the “best people.” More than pleased with herself, Mary declares that she is “Practically Perfect.” That’s a four syllable word, “prac-ti-CAL-ly.”
Magical elements from the 1964 film that can only be accomplished with a camera have been deleted, and replaced with miracles of stagecraft. China cabinets collapse and rise from the dust. Inconvenient characters disappear in flames. And marble statues in the park come alive and join in the chorus.
Speaking of that chorus, Merry-Go-Round is the first regional company to feature the original choreography from the Broadway production. These are indeed eye-popping and heart-thumping, as staged by Brian Collier, who understudied the role of Bert the chimney sweep in the 2006 production. Even before we get into the action, Bert (Eric Coles) has set the tone with “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” so well remembered from Dick Van Dyke. This Bert, however, is never a goofy galoot. He sagely observes Mary in the Banks household and always knows what’s going on, not unlike (to make a stretch) Che Guevara in Evita.
While the biggest numbers build on Richard and Robert Sherman’s 1964 score, each is tweaked and revamped to match the Fellowes revision. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” for example, has been moved from the Park scene to the Corry Sweet Shop outing. In becoming a dance number the entire company mimes each letter at top speed, like a Sesame Street routine enlarged to fill a halftime entertainment at the Rose Bowl.
The most dazzling number comes in the second act, as Bert, Mary and the children lead the chimney sweeps in “Step in Time.” To enlarge the chorus, lovely female dancers have obligingly blackened their faces and put on sooty trousers through thunderous tap steps. As we can’t be denied too much of a good thing, “Step in Time” is divided into two parts, “The Chimney Swept Clean” with the full company, and then just Bert and the sweeps, as they quicken the pace in “Down the Chimney.”
Keeping with P.L. Travers’ wishes, most of the last half of the second act is given over to the resolution of father George Banks’ executive decision to favor virtue over vice while investing his employer’s money. In contrast to David Tomlinson’s silly bumbler father in the 1964 movie, Patrick Oliver Jones’s father, under Ed Sayles’ direction, is far worthier of his family and our affection and trust. His three musical numbers are all affecting, especially when he is expecting the worst, “Give Us the Word.” Lucy Horton as wife Winifred is no longer a suffragist, but George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s addition to the score give her a splendid voice, as in “Being Mrs. Banks.”
Producing artistic director Ed Sayles has announced his retirement after 34 years running the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. A true professional is someone who gives us his best even when distracted.