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'Mary Poppins' on Broadway

by Elizabeth McPherson

March 2, 2007 -- New Amsterdam Theatre, New York City

“Mary Poppins” is a thoroughly enjoyable production based on the stories of P. L. Travers and the Walt Disney film. The center point of the set, designed by Bob Crowley, is a brilliant treatment of the Banks’ home, at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as a multi-storied dollhouse. The roof lifts off, and characters move from room to room and up and down stairs. The top story with slanted walls, due to the mansard roof, is the children’s nursery, and it lowers to the ground when the action centers in that room. The dollhouse effect immediately gives the production a sense of fantasy as the audience becomes voyeur on the ensuing action of miniature people in a miniature house.

The characters are well portrayed. Mr. Banks (Daniel Jenkins) conveys stilted repression and an inability to relate to his children and wife. Mrs. Banks (Rebecca Luker) expresses confused conflict, struggling with the passive roles expected of her by Edwardian society and her own burgeoning self-identity. Mary Poppins (Ashley Brown) is the prim, proper, no-nonsense nanny who uses magic in leading her charges and their parents toward concern for others and away from self-absorption. Bert (Gavin Lee) is a joyful free spirit assisting Mary Poppins in bettering the Banks’ lives.

The children, Jane and Michael (Delaney Moro and Matthew Gumley), equally inspire sympathy and disgust at their self-conceit; however their transition toward caring for others is the turning point of the play. Mary Poppins leaves abruptly, toward the middle of the play, to let the children take the next step on their own. Once they try to help their father, she returns to mend the last of the broken fences. When she makes her final exit, the Banks family is a mutually supportive unit, as opposed to being divided and marginally functional. Even the cook, Mrs. Brill (Jane Carr), transforms into making more delicious meals.

In Mary Poppins’ first magical outing with Jane and Michael, they escape into Bert’s painting of the park. Setting and costumes reflect the boundlessness of an artist’s imagination though bold color choices. The statues in the park come to life, dancing and cavorting with each other and the children. As a humorous touch, the statue Neleus (Brian Letendre) sports a fig leaf affixed to his statue-like unitard in a strategic location.

Also memorable is the scene in which the nursery toys, masterminded by Mary Poppins, put Jane and Michael on trial for “inhumane” treatment. It seems severe and out of keeping with positive role modeling and tutelage that Mary Poppins uses in the rest of the play. This scary trial seems more in keeping with the tactics of the frightening and oppressive nanny, Miss Andrews (Ruth Gottschall), who formerly “cared” for Mr. Banks and returns to care for the children briefly, before Mary Poppins sends her on her way.

Matthew Bourne’s ingenious choreography to the song“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” spells out the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious through body and arm shape, taking on a look of voguing. Bourne uses primarily unison movements, and the dancers tend to hold their spatial positions, the effect being grand scale hilarity. It is remarkable to see body letter shapes, a game often used in children’s movement classes, turned into “spell-binding” choreography. In the curtain call, the dance was reprised, to enthusiastic audience response.

The chimney sweep dance is less spectacular. Lines and formations were inexact, perhaps by intent; however the effect was mildly sloppy. The dancers were energetic, and the set is interesting with various shapes and sizes of chimneys and smokestacks. The choreography, however, involves limited use of the levels made available by the set. The tap is hardly groundbreaking, with the notable exception of Gavin Lee’s climb up the proscenium and across the proscenium upside down. In a true feat of showmanship, he sings and dances in this vertically challenging position!

Comparisons with the “Mary Poppins” movie are inevitable for those like me, who grew up watching it. Through similarities and differences, there is a sense of familiarity with the play as well as some surprises. The effect is something like a pleasant deja-vu.

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