“Poppins” Set To Fly Into Boston

Cameron Mackintosh, the creative force behind the musical “Mary Poppins”, tells an illuminating story of meeting with P.L. Travers, the quirky and combative author of the “Poppins” tales.  It was 1993, and Travers was still sharp as a tack at age 93 … he asked her about the creation of her famous character.  Travers answered elusively, saying only that “Mary just arrived.”  A practically perfect response, wouldn’t you say?

In some ways you could say the same thing about musical theatre.  How did this odd, often nonsensical way of telling a story ever get such a hold on so many of us?  Clearly not everyone is susceptible to its charms, (hey, big props to Fox for running a new episode of “Glee” after the Super Bowl … were they going for irony?), but to those of us who embrace it, it’s sometimes hard to explain why.  It just happens.

So, back to “Poppins.”  This show presents a raft of opportunities and pitfalls.  Introducing a new generation to live theatre is  the biggest plus.  The show’s run at the Opera House in Boston will cover the February school vacation week.  The material is smart and snappy, and get ready for some spectacular stage craft.  I’ve got my issues with Disney productions, but their lavish spending is not one of them.  Any kid interested in storytelling of this kind will be thoroughly captivated by a production of this quality.

Adults could be a slightly tougher sell.  Nostalgia will be a major factor.  The 1964 movie treatment has a huge following to this day.  The mix of live action, animation, and insanely catchy songs (more on the Sherman Brothers in a moment) has never been matched … it didn’t matter that Travers was less than thrilled with the results, audiences ate it up, and went back for seconds.  Much like L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz”, “Mary Poppins” exploded in popularity with the release of the film version.  Maybe it wasn’t the “Poppins” Travers wanted to see, but it made her a very rich lady.

The risk (and hopefully the reward) of the stage “Poppins” is that it is NOT a note for note translation of the movie.   Mackintosh brought in British writer Julian Fellowes to take a fresh look at Travers’ storylines and come up with some new variations on the theme.  Do not underestimate the talents of Mr. Fellowes, he’s just had a smashing success with “Downtown Abbey” on PBS, and he won a Best Screenplay Oscar for the film “Gosford Park” in 2001.

A couple of years back we saw the dangers of a slavish screen-to-stage production when ‘Dirty Dancing” came to town.  Reworked into a genuine musical it could have succeeded … instead we got a line by line reading that nearly crushed the whole enterprise.  Sure, some people would love a popsicle stick production of that story, but for me it was a disappointment, and a missed opportunity.

Now, to the Sherman Brothers (“Poppins” fanatics you may want to grab a glass of cool water) … not every tune from the movie is in the musical.  Yes, I heard the gasp.  Relax.  Most still are, and others have been updated by a new song writing team, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  The Stiles/Drewe duo have also added new songs to the mix.  I applaud this decision as long as the new material can match the whimsy and catchiness of the Sherman Brothers tunes.  Richard and Robert Sherman understand the evolution of any piece of pop culture better than most.  They had to help convince P.L. Travers to let go of her work so it could be adapted.  Now, they’re doing the same.

I’m looking forward to taking an umbrella ride with this new “Poppins.”  I’ve seen enough musical theatre to know better than to judge before taking in a full production.  I’ll be there for the Press Opening on Friday, February 18th and will post my review the next day.  I’m hoping a “Spoonful Of Sugar” will not be necessary.

“Mary Poppins” will be at the Boston Opera House from February 17 – March 20.  If you’re already sure you want to go, get your tickets now, because this show could sell out quick.  There’s a link to the Broadway Across America website below.



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