A Review

A Jolly Holiday

By R. J. Donovan

She's practically perfect in every way. Just ask her.

The national tour of "Mary Poppins" has blown into The Opera House, brimming with magic and mischief. While the production uses the iconic film musical as its foundation, it's actually an amalgam of both the film and the original P. L. Travers stories (upon which the film was based in the first place).

As directed by Richard Eyre, the stage musical is fun, but it has a much darker tone than the film. Co-producers Cameron Mackintosh and Disney haven't attempted to transfer the film to the stage scene by scene. As the film relied on a live action-animation mix, the effort would have been a challenge. So they've used the film as a general framework while adding new characters, songs and situations.

In a nutshell, the plot finds the highly dysfunctional Banks household --residing at 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London -- in dire need of a Nanny.

Mr. Banks is a very busy and fairly distant man. Mrs. Banks is his faithful wife. Their offspring are Jane and Michael, who write their own advertisement for a Nanny, which their father grabs, dismisses, tears up and tosses in the fireplace. The pieces magically fly up the chimney, and one Mary Poppins soon appears to take charge of things.

So what are the differences? While Mary Poppins in the film was firm but kind, on stage she's absolutely no-nonsense with a cool, steely edge. The children in the film were cute but mischievous. On stage they're brats. Mrs. Banks in the film was a suffragette fighting for women's rights. On stage, she's s former actress who's subservient to almost everyone with whom she comes in contact.

Gone are the flying carousel horses, the merry band of pearly singers and the rollicking tea party on the ceiling with Uncle Albert. In turn, the creators (Julian Fellowes is credited with writing the book for the musical) have added such new elements as a visit to the local park where statutes comes to life and a visit to Mrs. Corry's Sweet Shoppe which also sells words (including the tongue-twisting "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious").

As well, they've added a second Nanny to the plot -- Miss Andrew, otherwise known as "The Holy Terror" -- who temporarily takes Mary's place in Act Two. (At the mention of her name, audience members chuckled thinking it was a subtle tip of the hat to Julie Andrews. In fact, the character's name dates back to the original series of stories published in the 30s.) They've also added an unusual sequence during which the children's mistreated toys come to life to teach them a lesson.

As far as the musical numbers go, most of the classic songs by Richard M and Robert B. Sherman have been included ("Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," "Let's Go Fly A Kite," "Chim Chim Cher-ee"), although some have been moved around in the story and "Feed The Birds" has been reconfigured to include a vocal from the Bird Woman (the very talented Janet Macewen).

Composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have written some new songs to round things out including Mary's signature number, "Practically Perfect," and "Anything Can Happen," which comes late in the second act.

How does it all fare? At almost three hours, it seems a little long, especially for the tiny tikes who are going to make up a major share of the audience. And the new additions? Some of the songs are hummable, but none really hold a candle to the ones audiences already hold near and dear.

Happily, the beloved character of Bert The Chimney Sweep (nicely played by Nicolas Dromard, at left, with an easy manner and a warm personality) is on hand to act as a sort of narrator for the story overall. He's gentle with the children and loyal to the talents of Mary, his longtime friend. A dazzling dancer, Dromard leads the company is the rousing rooftop tap number "Step In Time," choreographed by Matthew Bourne. He actually taps up and over the stage frame, giving a gravity-defying performance that would make even Fred Astaire envious. (Dromard played the role of Bert on Broadway.)

The other two high energy moments are the visit to the sweet shoppe and the "Jolly Holiday" sequence which is cleverly staged to shift from dreary black and white to brilliant technicolor in one magical sweep.

Steffanie Leigh is the commanding Mary Poppins. With a sense of both confidence and ease, Leigh controls every situation in which she participates, whether she's dancing across rooftops, sliding up the banister or pulling impossibly large household items from her carpet bag.

Michael Dean Morgan is Mr. Banks with Blythe Wilson as his wife. Rachel Izen is very funny as the family's cook, Mrs. Brill. The children's roles are double cast; on opening night, they were played by Paige Simunovich and Cade Canon Ball. And Q. Smith applies her soaring singing voice to the roles of Queen Victoria and the aptly titled Holy Terror.

Visually and technically, the touring production is a winner. There were elements of the Broadway staging that would have been cost prohibitive to take on tour. However, scenic designer Robert Crowley has "re-imaged" the show in the truest sense of the word. The show looks great and beautifully transfers the essence of what's on stage at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York.

The exterior of the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane as well as some of the street backdrops, have been envisioned as story book pen and ink drawings done in black and white and shades of gray. The house itself unfolds like a giant dollhouse to reveal its inhabitants.

The interior of the bank is also impressive with its overwhelming forced perspective. And the scenic drop depicting St. Paul's Cathedral for "Feed The Birds" is so beautifully detailed that it appears to have actual physical depth.

In the end, with the wind having shifted, her work done and another family happily mended, everybody's favorite Nanny departs with a spectacular flourish that amazes everyone (really!) from those in the orchestra section to those high up in the balcony.

For some inside stories on the creation of both the film and the stage musical, take a look at the article I wrote last fall when Broadway Across America hosted a sneak peek preview event.

"Mary Poppins " is at The Opera House through March 12. For information, call 800-982-2787.

-- Production Photos: Joan Marcus

-- OnStage Boston




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