Mary Poppins in Boston: Supernanny Brought Back To Earth

Mary Poppins would give it to you straight, and so will I.  The musical that bares the iconic nanny’s name falls short of her practically perfect standards.  It’s absolutely acceptable … but coming from such fabled source material, that’s clearly a letdown.

Standards.  That’s what Mary Poppins is all about.  Doing it right … not just doing it.  Disney took a niche piece of children’s literature and turned it into a movie classic.  P.L. Travers, the crusty creator of Poppins, didn’t much care for the Hollywood version (and that’s putting it mildly).  Producer Cameron Mackintosh decided to look at Mary Poppins with fresh eyes before bringing the story to the stage.  Seems like the right approach too … take the best of the books and the movie, and add some updated ingredients.  Unfortunately the new dish doesn’t quite come together.

Most, but not all the songs written by Richard and Robert Sherman for the movie are included in the musical.  They are tweaked by a new songwriting team (George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) who also add some originals.  Does the mash-up work?  Well, put it this way, if this were a tag-team wrestling event then the Sherman Brothers have just tossed their challengers out of the ring!  “Chim Chim Cher-ee” .. “A Spoonful of Sugar” .. “Feed The Birds” .. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” .. “Step in Time” stomp all over the new entries.  Nearly 50 years after they were written they’re the freshest thing in the show.

This is the National Tour of “Mary Poppins” and the cast is filled with solid performers.  Steffanie Leigh certainly has the look and mannerisms of the title character down pat.  She’s all buttoned up and ready to take on the dysfunctional Banks family.  Leigh has a clean, and powerful singing voice, and a good sense of comic timing.  She’s all bottled up though, almost robotic at times.  Yes, yes I know she’s a magical person and all that, but I wanted to feel like there was blood pumping through her veins … not anti-freeze.  She’s game to take on the bratty Banks kids, but there’s no real warmth on display.  It makes their transformation less enjoyable … it’s expected not earned.

Nicolas Dromard is Bert .. part-time artist, chimney sweep, and wanna-be Poppins boyfriend.  He’s certainly seems to be having more fun than anyone else on stage.  It’s the little touches … a wink to the audience, an ad lib with a cast member, the joy of selling a production number.  Listen, Leigh and Dromard will not make you forget Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but at their best they do boost each other.  They’re always better together than on their own.

Now, just about all the action in “Mary Poppins” is built around the trials and tribulations of the Banks family.  So, you’ve got the job-centric dad, the clueless mom, and the neglected kids.  Yeah, check please!  I don’t care how good an actor you are, playing a badly written character is a no win situation.  You guessed it, there are no winners here.

So, what does work?  Well, there’s one truly, terrific production number in “Step In Time.”  Chimney sweeps dancing on the rooftops of London, with Mary and the kids cutting in to boot.  Heck, even Bert gets a wall climbing bit … thankfully there are no “Spider Man” moments here!

Mary also gets to do a little flying, but at rather curious times … wouldn’t you think that flying would be a great way to make an entrance?!  Of course you would … too bad you’re not directing!

Now to the big question … is it worth taking the kids?  Yes, by all means.  The costumes, sets and special effects are dazzling.  There’s one really awful number with a bunch of life-size toys, that also happen to be rather angry, but it passes quickly enough.  I wish the big new message number of the show had a little more to offer than “Anything Can Happen.”  There’s plenty of cartoony characters, like a mean old nanny .. a crabby cook .. and a bumbling butler, to keep things light.  In fact I think kids will have a lot more fun with this than adults, but that’s not a compliment.

“Mary Poppins” looks right, but doesn’t feel right.  It needed some true inspiration to make it more than a live-action movie experience.  Could no one think of a better way to execute “Supercali….” than turning it into a “Y-M-C-A” knock-off?  Nostalgia is a tricky thing.  This show could have been a lasting memory, instead it’s a passing fancy.

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