The successful product of a collaboration between Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, and British producer Cameron Mackintosh, Mary Poppins originated on the London stage in 2004 and opened two years later on Broadway where it continues to run at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The musical is based on the stories of author P.L. Travers and the 1964 classic Walt Disney film and, although the narrative is somewhat altered in the book by Julian Fellowes, it retains the beloved songs of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman with new material by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that fits seamlessly into the score.
Steffanie Leigh and Nicolas Dromard headline the company as Mary and her buddy Bert, the affable chimney sweep. Considering their natural chemistry together, you'd never know that Leigh took over the role only ten days prior to the Boston opening. She captures all of Mary's multi-faceted characteristics and displays her considerable talents as actress, singer and dancer. Dromard plays Bert as easygoing and down to earth, except when he's notkeep in mind that his workplace is a rooftopand even the likes of Fred Astaire would applaud his dancing across the top of the proscenium arch.
The cast is solid right down the line. Michael Dean Morgan is appropriately stern and humorless as priggish Mr. Banks who brings his desire for precision and order home from his job at the bank. Blythe Wilson has a beautiful voice and communicates how difficult it is to try to please in "Being Mrs. Banks." The children (Camille Mancuso and Talon Ackerman at this performance) are real troupers. They are integral to the story and rarely shunted to the background. Both have big, strong voices and hold their own with the grownups. Rachel Izen (Mrs. Brill) and Dennis Moench (Robertson Ay) do nice comic turns as the put upon household staff; Janet MacEwen (Bird Woman) sings like a songbird and Q. Smith, with her powerhouse voice, makes a tornado look like a summer breeze as Mr. Banks' childhood nanny Miss Andrew. Garett Hawe deserves a mention for his posing and balletic skills as the statue of Neleus.
Mary Poppins boasts a wonderful song list and numerous dance numbers (choreographed by Matthew Bourne) befitting a big Broadway musical. In selecting a few to talk about in greater detail, my criteria takes into consideration the synergy of set, costumes, choreography and energy. "Jolly Holiday" starts with a gray backdrop and costumes, but everything bursts with color and statues spring to life once Mary comes along. Later in the first act, the immortal "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is given a lively treatment worthy of its name as the entire ensemble in brightly colored designs repeatedly spells out the word using gyrations of body language. "Playing the Game" is one of the darker new songs wherein the children dream of their toys taking on human form, but it is offset by the light and airy joyousness of "Let's Go Fly a Kite." My favorite production number is the exuberant "Step in Time" with Bert and the Sweeps wielding their long brushes and tap dancing over roofs and chimneys.
The design elements are everything you'd expect from a Disney production, and more. Bob Crowley gets credit for both period costumes and eye-popping scenic design. The Banks house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane is first viewed from the exterior; the walls then open out to reveal the living area and staircase. For scenes in the children's room, a roof and nursery weighing 7,000 pounds descend in front of the other set. The bank features a domed atrium with large columns depicting silhouetted clerks angled upstage, with the overall effect of making the people look small and insignificant. Howard Harrison's lighting design includes over 350 different cues and, together with the sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, simulates effective rain, thunder and lightning.
No review of Mary Poppins would be complete without bringing up the flying sequences. After all, Mary doesn't carry around that parrot head umbrella just in case of rain. Rather than fly, she seems to float and ascends at a leisurely pace, akin to a stair-lift chair. When she leaves the ground, it is totally in service to the story and not so much exciting as inspiring and magical. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good epitaph for the show, too.
Mary Poppins Performances through March 20 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston; Ticketmaster 1-800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Boston. For more information on the future of the tour, visit disney.go.com/theatre/marypoppins/tour/.
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, Produced for Disney Theatrical Productions by Thomas Schumacher, Music Supervisor David Caddick, Music Director Daniel Bowling, Orchestrations by William David Brohn, Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, Dance and Vocal Arrangements by George Stiles, Co-choreographer Stephen Mear, Lighting Design by Howard Harrison, Scenic and Costume Design by Bob Crowley, Co-direction and Choreography by Matthew Bourne, Directed by Richard Eyre, Tour Directed by Anthony Lyn
Ensemble: Debra Cardona, Eric Coles, Mark Harapiak, Garett Hawe, Nick Sanchez, Michelle E. White, Jacob ben Widmar, Kiara Bennett, Troy Edward Bowles, Elizabeth Broadhurst, Carol Angeli Dillard, Case Dillard, Elizabeth Earley, Geoffrey Goldberg, Eric Hatch, Tiffany Howard, Kelly Jacobs, Sam Kiernan, Stephanie Martignetti, Koh Mochizuki, Shua Potter, Chuck Rea, Jesse Swimm, Jen Taylor, Rachel Wallace