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Broadway Reviews

Mary Poppins

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 16, 2006

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. New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh. Directed by Richard Eyre. Co-direction and Choreography by Matthew Bourne. Scenic and Costume Design by Bob Crowley. Co-choreographer Stephen Mear. Lighting Design by Howard Harrison. Music Supervisor David Caddick. Music Director Brad Haak. Orchestrations by William David Brohn. Broadway Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Dance and Vocal Arrangements by George Stiles. Associate Choreographer Geoffrey Garratt. Associate Director Anthony Lyn. Associate Producer James Thane. Makeup Designby Naomi Donne. Produced for Disney Theatrical Productions by Thomas Schumacher. Cast: Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee, Daniel Jenkins, Rebecca Luker, Cass Morgan, Mark Price, Ruth Gottschall, Michael McCarty, and Jane Carr; Katherine Leigh Doherty, Kathryn Faughnan, Matthew Gumley, Henry Hodges, Delaney Moro, Alexander Scheitinger, Ann Arvia, Nick Corley, James Hindman, Brian Letendre, Matt Loehr, Sean McCort, Janelle Anne Robinson, Eric B. Anthony, Pam Bradley, Kristin Carbone, Brian Collier, Case Dillard, Nicolas Dromard, Suzanne Hylenski, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Michelle Lookadoo, Tony Mansker, Tyler Maynard, Vasthy E. Mompoint, Jesse Nager, Kathleen Nanni, Megan Osterhaus, Dominic Roberts, Rommy Sandhu, Shekitra Starke, Catherine Walker, Kevin Samual Yee.
Theatre: New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Audience: Disney on Broadway performances are recommended for a general audience. As an advisory to adults who might bring young people, Disney recomments its productions for ages 6 and up. All persons entering the theatre, regardless of age, must have a ticket.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, Sunday at 3pm.
Ticket prices: Premium Seats $250, Orchestra $110, Mezzanine $110 - $80, Balcony $60 - $20.
Tickets: Ticketmaster

The schizophrenic turns surreal late in the second act of the new stage adaptation of Mary Poppins, which just opened at the New Amsterdam. Mr. George Banks, facing personal financial disaster after concluding his children should be the most important things in his life, blurts to his blustering bank chairman boss, "There are more important things in life than making money!"

Oh really? Someone should have told producers Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, because the show surrounding Mr. Banks's revelation professes exactly the opposite, in deed if not in word. Of the many problems with this charmless and practically artless musical, which has been directed by Richard Eyre with infinite theme-park flair, this is perhaps the most insurmountable.

Disney and Mackintosh are both experts at shepherding shows to worldwide success with generous infusions of capital, and ensuring your $110 ticket gets you a superb-looking show. So when they teamed to bring to the stage both P.L. Travers's stories about an enchanted English nanny and the 1964 Disney musical film that made her a household name, results at once eye-popping and headache-inducing were perhaps inevitable.

But the other shows each has been involved with - Mackintosh's record-smashing pop operas, including Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Cats; Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aida, and Tarzan - haven't told stories about the dangers of pursuing wealth to the exclusion of all else. So even when those shows lack soul - as they all too frequently do - they're never hypocritical. Mary Poppins is seldom anything but.

It looks like designer Bob Crowley was encouraged to spend a small fortune on sets and costumes of uncommon bounty, which evoke Victorian London in sepia shades, Technicolor, and opulent extravagance. But for Mackintosh and Disney, these are investments in a show all but guaranteed to run somewhere in the realm of forever, and it's in every other element of the show, from the book and score to the performers, that Mary Poppins is indistinguishable from a no-fee, no-frills ATM for its creators.

For while Mackintosh reportedly wanted to divest Travers's property of the film's saccharine, he wasn't willing to do it at the expense of the score and characterizations that made the movie an international and intergenerational phenomenon. Thus, this Mary Poppins attempts to combine the relative grit of Travers's stories and the blood-level familiarity of classic Sherman brothers songs like "Chim-Chim-Cher-ee," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Let's Go Fly a Kite" into a new creation that's the best of both worlds.

Librettist Julian Fellowes, however, doesn't reconcile these contradictory attitudes into a cohesive work. Sometimes Mary is sweet, willing to escort Jane and Michael Banks on walks in the park, on the London rooftops, and even among the stars, and other times she's downright vicious, as when she tortures them for torturing their toys, but the nature of her caprice is never elucidated. (Mary may insist she never explains anything; the writer of a musical's book doesn't have that option.) What's more, Mr. and Mrs. Banks have been transformed from passionate advocates of fiscal responsibility and women's suffrage into passionless victims, he of an upbringing under a totalitarian nanny named Miss Andrew, she of the belief that social status should be cultivated at any cost.

These choices, and others, rob the material of its inherent musicality, which doesn't stop the songs from coming. And as long as audiences get those songs - plus a flying, spellcasting Mary, a wise-cracking chimney sweep in her compatriot Bert, and the requisite uplifting ending - they'll be thrilled whatever other flaws abound. The Shermans' songs remain bouncy and playful, though a couple have been (regrettably, but not devastatingly) excised. George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have written a bunch of new numbers to round out the score; while they're in no way the equals of the Shermans' classics, they're the best Disney stage songs since The Lion King.

They don't stick in the memory, though; little about this Mary Poppins does that wasn't implanted years (or decades) ago. Some of Matthew Bourne's choreography, especially for the bloated second-act production number "Step in Time," is cute (though the frantic "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," diluted to a series of reductive hand gestures, disappoints), and it will take a while for Crowley's sets and costumes to be equaled in quality and quantity at today's reduced budgets.

Everything else tends to vanish from your mind almost instantly, including the performers, most of whom seem to have been cast precisely so they can easily be replaced. Eyre even seems to have directed them to display as little personality as possible, so the next 20 years of sit-down and touring productions will all have performers displaying roughly the same, animatronic traits.

Nothing else can explain Ashley Brown in the title role, bearing a wax-lips smile (even when she frowns) that doesn't make her recall Julie Andrews's luminous, auntlike Mary or Travers' no-nonsense one as much as a department store mannequin in a Halloween window. Brown possesses a pleasant, light soprano, but no other distinctive qualities that suggest she'll follow Andrews into superstardom.

Daniel Jenkins is a solid Mr. Banks, even an affecting one near the show's end, but lacks the authority that will make him more than a little boy lost. Rebecca Luker brings several layers of vague perturbations to Mrs. Banks, but little else; it doesn't help that she's saddled with the show's blandest lines and songs, but that doesn't excuse her subdued-shrieky portrayal. Mark Price and Jane Carr are serviceable in the thankless roles of the Banks's bedraggled servants; the Jane and Michael I saw, Kathryn Faughnan and Henry Hodges, weren't much better.

Only Gavin Lee and Ruth Gottschall are allowed to capitalize on their own unique talents. As the wild-eyed, rubber-limbed jack-of-all trades Bert, also the show's de facto narrator, Lee (who originated Bert in London in 2004) brings a raucous, music-hall quality to Bert that makes him spicier than the underseasoned roles surrounding him. If he's never better than when shamelessly showcasing his fearlessness to tap upside-down in "Step in Time," he's also never less than credible (higher praise here than you might think).

Gottschall's got it even tougher as Mr. Banks's destructive former nanny, who arrives to replace a departed Mary following one of the least suspenseful first-act curtains in history, and who brandishes smoking potions and operatically babbles about their contents of "Brimstone and Treacle" a la the Wicked Witch of the West. Though Miss Andrew is little more than a mild threat for Mary to vanquish, Gottschall invests her with the courage of her demented convictions in a way that throttles you to attention unlike anything else here.

Brown is only equivalently riveting when making her aerial exit from the theater at show's end, creating the closest thing to actual theatrical magic this production sees. The visual is so striking that your attention is drawn away from the once-divided-now-restored Banks family on its way to creating its own happy ending; we're not expected to care for - or even notice - them when there are special effects to attend to. That, more than anything else, shows where this Mary Poppins's devotions truly lie.

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