— Production poster
DISNEY AND CAMERON MACKINTOSH’S MARY POPPINS
This is Jerry's review of the original Arts Club production from 2013.
The Christmas theatre season is upon us, and none too soon if your theatrical appetite craves a full set, costumes, more than one or two actors and maybe some dancing. Though marked by strong storytelling and a handful of memorable performances, this fall has seen the recession hit our theatres in a big way. The fringe festival format--a lone actor or two on a mostly bare stage--has been the dominant mode of production for the region's major companies. Theatrically speaking, this thin gruel leaves some of us salivating for the turkey with all its trimmings.
The Arts Club's Mary Poppins, playing at the Stanley through New Year's, is no turkey but neither is it deluxe dining. There's a lot to like in Bill Millerd's big, handsome production, from Sara-Jeanne Hosie's magical Mary to Alison Green's gorgeous painted sets and Valerie Easton's choreography. But the music and overall sensibility of this version make for a bland, unsatisfying theatrical meal.
The full title, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical, announces the corporate nature of the product. In addition to its two producers, credits go to P.L. Travers' original stories, the 1964 Walt Disney film, composer-lyricists Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, Julian Fellowes' book, and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe for additional music and lyrics. Maybe it's a case of too many cooks.
Set in the Edwardian servanted home of wealthy banker George Banks (Warren Kimmel) and his loyal but neglected wife Winifred (Catriona Murphy), the show gets off to an odd start. The Banks family has just lost its sixth nanny, presumably because little Michael (Graham Verchere) and Jane (Kassia Danielle Malmquist) are so bratty and uncontrollable that they drive the nannies to quit. But the kids actually seem perfectly ordinary. Not until much later do we see them acting out in even a moderate way. We're led to understand that dad's disinterest in family matters has driven them to unruliness. All you need is love and a firm but liberal nanny, it turns out.
Enter Mary Poppins, who appears out of nowhere and begins teaching important lessons: just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Hosie has a terrific voice that can hit all those Julie Andrews high notes, plus ramrod-straight posture and a clipped, curious disdain for the ordinary. But there's nothing very interesting for her to sing besides the “Spoonful of Sugar” song and parts of the novelty tune “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the latter in an Alice in Wonderlandish scene featuring great costumes from Sheila White and the first of two enjoyably quirky performances by Katey Wright. Wright appears again as George Banks' witchy old nanny, Miss Andrew, whom Mary vanquishes much too quickly and easily.
The show's other recognizable song, “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” is sung by Mary's Cockney chimney sweep pal Bert, overplayed by Scott Walters with relentless music hall cheer. Mary's exposure of the Banks children to the world of the happy, artsy working class poor, represented by Bert and others, including some impressive dancing statues, doesn't actually have much effect on them.
More important is their father's revelation that there's more to life than making money. Sour Mr. Banks is not a character anyone except his steadfast Mrs. is likely to root for, so his transformation hasn't much effect on the audience. But the family is sure glad when, instead of losing his job, he quadruples his salary. Young Michael is rewarded with a telescope and a kite but Jane has to settle for dad's renewed affection, following in her mother's footsteps. In the movie Mrs. Banks was a suffragette. This version makes her a former actress happy to settle for the life of a wife, standing by her man. Those were the days.
Visually, the show is a treat. Set designer Alison Green establishes different locales with beautifully painted drops that look like Edwardian watercolours. Mr. Banks' stunning trompe l'oeil bank is my favourite. Marsha Sibthorpe's lighting and Craig Alfredson's projections play across the backdrops as birds or whirligigs to animate the set and help create a magical atmosphere. Mary's magic is cleverly evoked when she pulls lamps, mirrors, hat stands and more out of her bag and fantastically restores to order (kudos to Green again) a kitchen wrecked by the servant with the strange name, Robertson Ay, athletically played by Shane Snow.
Of course Mary magically flies, soaring with her umbrella in that iconic image across the stage and even over the audience. Although a necessary effect, like the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera or the helicopter in Miss Saigon, it doesn't add much to Mary's already well established charisma. Much more impressive is the big dance number “Step in Time,” a showcase for some excellent hoofing and Val Easton's imaginative choreography.
Bruce Kellett's six-piece orchestra provides a big sound for the forgettable music and lyrics, like the closing number, “Anything Can Happen (If You Let It),” a notion about as profound as this show gets.