nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 21, 2006
If, like me, you are somebody who grew up with the Disney film Mary Poppins and loved it, then I think you will be very disappointed in the new stage musical version that's just arrived on Broadway. If, on the other hand, the film is not something you cherish—and apparently the folks who own the rights to it are among this group—then it's possible that you might find something to like in this overblown, misconceived, needlessly dark and pointlessly contemporized version of P.L. Travers's famous stories and the 1964 movie. Don't bring the little kids along, though, for the show is far too long to hold their attention and also too scary in places for the smallest fry (there were children both asleep and frightened in the crowd when I saw the show). And don't count on being terribly entertained, or on having what unfolds before you make any particular sense.
(You can count on plenty of opportunities to buy Mary Poppins merchandise, naturally. And on a Disney-fied version of the playbill that has been stripped of articles and advertisements related to non-Disney shows: shameful, that!)
The story revolves around the Banks family of Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane in Victorian (not Edwardian!) London. George Banks, the family patriarch, is a wimpy loan officer at a bank who never recovered from his maltreatment at the hands of a monstrous nanny named Miss Andrew, and as a result has severe intimacy issues vis-a-vis his wife and children. Mrs. Banks, Winifred by name, is a former actress who is apparently trying her best to run the home, but is clearly failing miserably: the servants are all lousy at their jobs and the two children, Jane and Michael, are obnoxious, whiny brats.
After the umpteenth nanny quits, and after Jane and Michael compose an advertisement for what they believe would be "The Perfect Nanny" (the only song from the film to be presented verbatim in the show), a magical person called Mary Poppins suddenly appears in the Bankses' living room. She informs the family that she will be Jane and Michael's new nanny, and soon takes the children on a series of adventures that we're supposed to believe transform them into better people although it's impossible to understand how they do.
Each of these so-called adventures consists of Mary Poppins and her pal Bert (an itinerant worker who sometimes paints pictures, sometimes lights lampposts, and sometimes sweeps out chimneys) bringing the children to an ordinary location such as a city park or the roof of their house and encountering eccentric strangers such as statues come to life (in the park) or a group of tap-dancing chimney sweeps (on the roof). The children whine and complain that they don't want to be wherever they've been brought; then Mary, Bert, and company burst into lively song and dance and, inexplicably, the children join in. In the movie, these sequences (the delightful animated "Jolly Holiday," the joyous "Step in Time") engaged our hearts and imaginations and Jane's and Michael's as well. On stage, they merely fill time, ours and theirs.
The internal logic of Mary Poppins's excellent screenplay has been turned on its ear by book-writer Julian Fellowes. Not only do Jane and Michael's journeys with Mary Poppins fail to scan, but the redemption (so to speak) of poor George Banks is completely bungled here. In the film, Mary Poppins tricks Banks into bringing his children with him to work on her day off, where they inadvertently cause a run on the bank and set off a chase through the streets of London as the kids mistakenly believe that their father is going to punish or hurt them for causing him trouble at work. George then faces his supervisors alone and, using what his children have taught him from their times with Mary Poppins, ultimately wins them over and saves his job.
In this version, George's job is in jeopardy because he makes poor decisions about a couple of loans. Mary Poppins brings the children to the bank without asking anyone's permission (and ultimately to no real effect). Winifred insists on coming to the bank and helping George win back his job because, after all, any self-respecting man or woman would want his/her spouse to back them up at work.
Mary Poppins helpfully sums up what we've learned from all of this in a song whose refrain begins "anything can happen if you let it."
If you're scratching your head wondering how a practically perfect movie musical could have been messed up so profligately, well...so was I, for all two hours and forty-five minutes I was in the theatre. And I haven't even told you about the appearance of Miss Andrew (who sings a Bedknobs and Broomsticks reject called "Brimstone and Treacle") or the whacked-out ballet in which Jane and Michael's toys place their owners before a firing squad because they're such nasty, spoiled children (artfully but entirely inappropriately choreographed by Matthew Bourne like an outtake from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).
Bob Crowley's design is elegant in places but never as gloriously joyous as the movie at its sunniest (could it possibly be?). Bourne's choreography never feels of a piece with the rest of the show, and Richard Eyre's staging is competent but uninspired. Among the main actors, Rebecca Luker fares best as Mrs. Banks, and when she sings (which isn't very often), you realize that she, and not Ashley Brown, ought to be starring as Mary Poppins. Daniel Jenkins, a wonderful actor, is utterly miscast as Mr. Banks, while Gavin Lee as Bert reminds us fitfully of Dick Van Dyke but never gets to strut his considerable stuff. Meanwhile, expert Broadway players such as Ruth Gottschall, Cass Morgan, and Sean McCourt are stuck in supporting roles that will pay the rent but couldn't possibly be terribly interesting or challenging to perform.
Exactly three of the songs from the Oscar-winning score have been kept intact, with even the film's most famous ditty, "Chim Chim Cher-ee," adapted (i.e., mangled) by songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to suit the show's, er, concept. (The program says Cameron Mackintosh is the show's "co-creator" but there's no one else listed with equivalent billing, so I guess we can place all the blame on him.)
I am not one for duplicating a movie on stage, believe me; but if you pay money to see something that you expect to be Disney's Mary Poppins, you just shouldn't have to wind up being so baldly duped. It is true that, as Ms. Poppins sings here, anything can happen if you let it. But if you resist the Disney hype machine, you don't have to let this terrible excuse for a musical happen to you.