Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
A large contributor to the freshness of this Mary Poppins is that the stage musical is not a direct adaptation of the beloved 50-year-old plus movie, but an amalgam of substantial portions of the movie and additional Poppins stories by P. L. Travers. Consequential new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe supplement a considerable number of the Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman movie melodies (some with new lyrics by Anthony Drewe). Part of the aim of the revisions apparently is to restore some of the tensile strength of Travers' Poppins as well as to reduce the Disney treacle. Several fine new songs, including "Practically Perfect" and "Cherry Tree Lane" and the introduction of additional new lyrics are truly felicitous.
For those new to this property, the story depicts job obsessed, insecure bank executive George Banks and his hapless wife Winifred, who cannot keep a nanny due to the contentiousness of their dissatisfied young daughter Jane and son Michael. Magical and loving no-nonsense applicant nanny Mary Poppins, ballasted by her umbrella, flies in from the heavens to help the Banks family restore its happiness and good fortune. Poppins is assisted in her efforts by her happy-go-lucky street artist, chimney sweep pal Bert. A series of adventures and misadventures ensue.
As the evening's leading song and dance man, Mark Evans (Bert) is superlative. His terpsichorean skill and precision is enhanced by an ebullient eccentricity which brings to mind the great Ray Bolger. While, on opening night, Mark Evans' interpretation of Bert was a bit dour, I do not doubt but that he will quickly extend the joy of his movement to all aspects of his performance. Elena Shaddow brings her beautiful soprano to the title role. Shaddow does not soften the increased astringency of the rigid, strong backboned Poppins. As admirable as this may be, book author Julian Fellowes' Poppins emerges as somewhat schizophrenic and difficult to fully embrace.
Somewhat off-putting (and not exactly clear) is a scene in which Jane and Michael angrily mistreat their toys. The toys nightmarishly spring to giant-sized life and attack the children, singing "Temper, temper/ Caught you at last/ Your quick temper went a bit fast/ This is a place of woe/ This is a place where all wicked children go." The toys place the children on trial, threatening them with death. It seems to me that the magical nanny (who leaves the children in their room just before the nightmare and returns at its conclusion) may have had a hand in this event, but I am uncertain.
Adam Monley's earnest, dimensional, sympathetic, and youthful paterfamilias, George Banks, provides the dramatic center and dramatic continuity which holds this episodic musical together. The re-invention of the role of Banks for the stage Poppins is a crucial element in its success, and Monley strongly realizes it. Jill Paice provides solid support both vocally and dramatically as Winifred Banks, the family matriarch.
The redoubtable Liz McCartney (Paper Mill regulars will particularly remember her formidable Ursula in Disney's Little Mermaid) portrays Miss Andrew, "the holy terror" nanny of George Banks' childhood, called back in this stage version to shape up the Banks children. She delightfully raises the roof singing the semi-operatic "Brimstone and Treacle." McCartney also briefly portrays the Bird Woman ("Feed the Birds"). Abbie Grace Levi and John Michael Pitera (alternating with Madi Shaer and Maddox Padgett) as Jane and Michael perform appealingly. Jack Sippel dances the role of the statue of Neleus with delightful verve.
Although some scenic ruffles and flourishes seen in Bob Crowley's original stage settings have been cut, Timothy R. MacKabee's scenic design captures the basic design and most of its essentials. The placement of Jane and Michael's bedroom as a standalone set piece makes it far more comfortable to view than its original placement up in the rafters. In the current production, Mary Poppins only flies within the proscenium, and Bert does not traverse it.
Each featured player and member of the ensemble, thirty strong in total, makes a notable contribution in a production that reaches its apogee throughout three extended large production numbers to classic Sherman brothers tunes, "Jolly Holiday," "Supercalifrag ... " (you know the rest), and "Chim, Chim, Cher-ee." The choreographic creativity and performance energy, precision, and detail are incredible. While choreographer Denis Jones shares credit with original choreographer Matthew Bourne (and his co-choreographer Stephen Mear), there is clearly considerable original work here. Jones' fresh choreography to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious " and its performance by the company are stage magic.
Kudos to director Mark Hoebee (Paper Mill Artistic Director) for the sensitivity and skill which he has brought to this robustly delightful Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins continues performances through June 25, 2017, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org
Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins, a musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes. New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh.