Jul 16, 2017

Theater Review: Musical Theater West's "Mary Poppins"

Scene from "Mary Poppins"
There are few movies in Disney's rich filmography as beloved as Mary Poppins: a story of a nanny who is practically perfect in every way. Her whimsical stories are charming, and it was only time until the studio would adapt it to the stage. Even if the story takes the audience to a land of wonders that would be difficult to produce in live theater, Musical Theater West still manages to capture the enthusiasm and excitement of the P.L. Travers source material. Featuring several of The Sherman Brothers' iconic hits like "A Spoonful of Sugar," the show finds a way to capture the enthusiasm and wit in a story that strays from the film, but still manages to be just as fun. Even if there's no dancing animated animals or tea parties on the ceiling, it still manages to find practical ways to create an infectious evening of entertainment that will have everyone smiling and wanting to sing along.
The story begins with a fog falling over the stage. As the orchestra builds to the whimsical world of 1910 London, narrator Bert (Robert Pieranunzi) emerges singing a whimsical tune. Everything seems ominous as he introduces the story's main family The Bankses. They have had trouble with nannies and want a great one. By the end of the first scene, Mary Poppins (Katharine McDonough) emerges as that hero, coming to rescue the children from a humdrum lifestyle in part inspired by their curmudgeon banker father George (Martin Kildare) and repressive mother Winifred (Amanda Leigh Jerry). How is this nanny going to be different? Well, she's going to teach them to appreciate life through various charming vignettes.
It is from here that the stage show separates from the film, largely due to practicality. Large production numbers shift into more intimate settings. "A Spoonful of Sugar" is performed in an inspired kitchen scene that mixes slapstick humor with cleverly fixing a shelf full of broken dishes. Other numbers like "Jolly Holiday" get around fantastical sets with jaunty dance numbers where the supporting cast wears colorful outfits with brief interludes straight out of vaudeville. Because of the show's minimalist settings, the show never lags and, as is the case with the magnificent second act performance of "Step in Time," manages to transition between two different settings without the song losing momentum. There's even two showstopping moments that are so whimsical and exciting that it warrants the price of admission alone.
The story also adds a deeper text to George's history with his own "holy terror" nanny Miss Andrew (Janna Cardia), which adds a welcomed bit of surreal comedy in the second act. Even as the story becomes melancholic, the show never loses its enthusiasm for its characters. There's still a sense of hope that Mary will save the day and George will resolve his financial woes. Overall, the story benefits from exploring how diverse the world is. There's an ongoing struggle to see the world as a place of promise as times become rough. The show manages to portray the serious themes in ways appealing to kids. It's most apparent in the song "Anything Can Happen," which suggests that change can happen if you believe in yourself. It's a simple message, but one that fits this story of optimistic ingenuity.
McDonough's performance as Mary will please fans of the Julie Andrews movie version. She manages to play refined while saying witty lines about her perfection. She encapsulates a sense of superiority that is desired, and manages to do so without allowing a bit of cheeky fun. Along with Pieranunzi, they carry the film through a whimsical recreation that elevates the familiar songs to a more Broadway appeal. It's a bigger show and takes more liberties with the source material. Even then, the changes benefit the story's overall integrity in ways that make this feel like more than a quick cash in. It's fun for the whole family, and does plenty to show that Travers' story isn't restricted to just one medium. The new songs may not quite have the immediacy of the Sherman Brothers originals, but they still work. It's a great night of entertainment that will be hard to pass up. 

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