Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Mary Poppins" at the Orpheum Theatre

In general, I'm not a big fan of the current trend of turning movies into musicals. But when the original source is a classic movie musical, I make an exception! The only surprise is that it took 40 years for the 1964 beloved children's classic Mary Poppins, starring the great Julie Andrews, to make it to the Broadway stage. The 2004 West End production moved to Broadway in 2006, and just closed last month. I've never seen it on Broadway because there are just too many other good choices (and I'm over 12 years old), but I was excited to see it on tour and see how this classic translates to the stage. It's been a while since I've seen the movie (again, I'm over 12 years old), but the playbill kindly notes the half dozen new songs (by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) that have been added to the originals from the movie (by Richard and Robert Sherman), with varying degrees of success. There are a few unnecessary songs and scenes that I would cut to get all the kids in the audience (and myself) home to bed earlier, but some of the movie's best moments have been translated to the stage remarkably well. On the whole, Mary Poppins is an utterly charming stage musical that's highly entertaining, especially for the young ones. And let's face it, if "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" doesn't make you smile, it's possible you don't have a soul.

Highlights and other thoughts:
  • As the title character, Madeline Trumble is indeed practically perfect in every way. She channels Julie Andrews, and has remarkable control of her voice, sometimes singing in this trill that's so very Mary Poppins. Her every move, from the top of her head to the tips of her fingers, is precise, practiced, and perfect. In any other role it might be too polished, but this is exactly how we all know Mary Poppins to be. She does Julie Andrews proud.
  • Con O'Shea-Creal is a real charmer as omnipresent chimney sweep Bert. The character serves as a sort of narrator, always there in scene transitions singing "Chim Chim Cher-ee" in a mournful or light-hearted way as the scene demands. He moves with grace about the stage and has great chemistry with the children. And in one thrilling moment, he effortlessly walks up the side of the stage and across the ceiling, all with a smile.
  • Speaking of the children, what adorably precocious little pros are Alexa Shae Niziak and Eli Tokash as Jane and Michael Banks! They carry several scenes by themselves, interact with the cast, sing, dance, they do it all. What a life for a kid, to travel the country and live in the world of Mary Poppins four times a week (two Janes and two Michaels travel with the show and take turns in the role).
  • The sets are truly spectacular. The Banks family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane moves forward from the back of the stage and opens like a life-size dollhouse. Later, it turns around and the back opens up to reveal the kitchen (like on Downton Abby, whose creator Julian Fellowes wrote the book, we get a glimpse into the life of the servants as well as the masters of the house). The park, the bank, and the cityscape are all equally magical with clever use of perspective on the backdrops. And yes, there's a bit of flying, which is not the sort of thing that impresses me at the theater. But you can't really do Mary Poppins without seeing her rise into the air with her umbrella.
  • I'm disappointed that the women's suffrage subplot was removed, along with my favorite line from the movie: "We all like men individually, but we agree that as a group they're rather stupid." Instead we get a boring plot of Mr. Banks' troubles at work (he works at a bank, how clever), and Mrs. Banks trying to support him (one of my least favorite new songs "Being Mrs. Banks"). If I was bored by all this business of lending and making money and marriage stuff, I can't imagine what the kids thought. But of course, a lesson has to be learned, and that comes when Mr. Banks learns to stop being a jerk and pay attention to his wife and kids.
  • Another needless scene is when the toys come to life and dance around, singing a song that the playbill tells me is called "Playing the Game" (that's how little I remember it). It's an addition that didn't work for me, unlike the moving and dancing statues which I found delightful.
  • I could take or leave the evil nanny. I suppose it's necessary for Mr. Banks obligatory transformation but I just wanted Mary to come back. But I guess that's the point.
  • A few of the new songs worked. "Cherry Tree Lane" is a great way to get through some of the exposition and tell us who the players are. "Practically Perfect" feels like it could have been in the movie as Mary Poppins gets to know the kids and they her. Every musical needs a feel good anthem, and that is "Anything Can Happen (If You Let It)." It's a great message of imagination and positivity, as is the show.
  • You'll also recognize some old favorites, the haunting "Feed the Birds," the upbeat "Jolly Holiday" (with a colorful explosion), the fabulous dance number "Step In Time," and my favorite, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," set in a fantastical "talking shop." At one point Mary spells the word while Bert forms the letters with his body, and it gets faster and faster as the entire cast joins in. It's a thrill, no wonder they chose it as a post-curtain call sendoff.
Mary Poppins is not a musical I would choose to see on Broadway, but on tour, I think it's a great choice, especially if you have little ones. It's never too early to expose kids to theater, and this is a great one. Just be prepared for a late bedtime and crabby child the next day! Small price to pay for this memory (playing through this weekend only).