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Mary Poppins (11/16/2006 - 03/03/2013)


 

AP: "Mary Poppins flies to Broadway"

Watching "Mary Poppins," the Disney-Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza now on view at the New Amsterdam Theatre, is a little like eating an entire box of expensive chocolates - all by yourself.

You may end up feeling a bit overstuffed, but, boy, the experience will be fun. Tasty, too. This lavish stage version about the world's most blissfully competent nanny Is an amalgamation of the 1964 Disney movie that made Julie Andrews a film star and the classic children's books by P.L. Travers.

What its high-powered creative team has expertly grafted together Is essentially two stories. The first is a tale of a family in trouble - in this case, the Banks clan of17 Cherry Tree Lanein Edwardian London. Right from the beginning, you know "a father, a mother, a daughter, a son, the threads of their lives are all raveling undone." That observation is delivered by Bert, the cheerful chimney sweep who serves as the musical's Informal narrator.

The second strand is made up of large, and we do mean LARGE, production numbers that comprise the adventures instigated by Mary Poppins, portrayed with charm and crisp vocal power by a lovely Ashley Brown. The actress has something more, too, a sense of humor, a quality that helps mitigate the character's know-it-all aura.

It's Mary, who in Julian ("GosfordPark") Fellowes' efficient adaptation, patches up the family discord as its members discover what it is like to enjoy life and each other. To get to that point, we watch the emotionally stunted Mr. Banks, played with twitchy, nervous likability by Daniel Jenkins, work out his Intimacy Issues.

They involve dealing not only with his bratty and lonely children (portrayed at different performances by three rotating sets of child actors) but with his neglected, unfulfilled wife - a glorious Rebecca Luker in too small a role.

Woven throughout the show are the classic songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman from the movie. All the big ones are here - from "Chlm Chim Cher-ee" (an Academy Award winner) to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." New songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have been added. They fit seamlessly into the proceedings, and one or two of them, including Mary's opening number "Practically Perfect," possess an instant hypnotic quality. Definite singing-in-the-shower material.

Director Richard Eyre has marshaled the parade of eye-popping scenes with considerable assurance, fully exploiting the talents of his co-director and choreographer, Matthew Boume, and his set and costume design wizard, Bob Crowley.

Where to begin? The "Jolly Holiday" Technicolor transformation of aLondonpark where the statues come alive and begin dancing with the park strollers. Mary Popplns' reassembling of a wrecked kitchen with just "A Spoonful of Sugar." And then the exuberant "Step in Time" where a caravan of chimney sweeps cavort across the stage.

But that's nothing compared to the upside-down tap antics of Bert, portrayed by a lanky, grinning Gavin Lee, who comes direct from the London production of "Mary Poppins." Lee, sort of a new generation Jim Dale by way of Dick Van Dyke and Fred Astalre, is a major musical-theater find.

There have been snippy comments in the press about the scare quality of another of the big numbers, "Temper, Temper: where toys come alive to torment the naughty children. It's fairly mild stuff, certainly not in the trauma-producing mode of some of the more malevolent Grimm's fairy tales.

Crowley's detailed sets, particularly his gargantuan, four-level Banks household, are wonders to behold. The technical kinks experienced in preview performances seem to have been worked out. Right now, they sweep and swirl with majestic grace. And his costumes don't quit either - a staggering array of colorful period clothes.

Yet at its heart, this "Mary Poppins" is a small story, a family drama that is resolved with the help of a determined, thoroughly directed young woman. That this human and humane story shines through all the dazzling theatrical effects demonstrates the potency of its emotional impact.

Of course, there wouldn't be a happy ending without that formidable nanny, so Mary Poppins does get the last word. Or maybe we should say the last soaring, special effect. It won't be revealed here. Just remember that the woman's signature umbrella comes in very handy.


AP
11/16/2006

New York Daily News: "It's eye-'Poppin'"

Nobody does magical entertainment like Disney - except Cameron Mackintosh. The two have teamed up for the musical "Mary Poppins," which opened last night on Broadway and won't be going anywhere for a long time. It is a roof-raising, toe-tapping, high-flying extravaganza.

The show, directed by Richard Eyre and written by Julian Fellowes, is based on books by P.L. Travers and the classic Disney film that won an Oscar for Julie Andrews.

No one's erasing that legendary performance, but Ashley Brown is a joy to watch as the enigmatic nanny who helps the Banks family - George and Winifred and their children, Michael and Jane - realize how much they need each other.

Brown had me from hello - well, from, "Jane, don't stare, and close your mouth, Michael. We are not a codfish." She plays Mary as stern and steely, but always has a bewitching twinkle in her eye. She sings, acts and dances gorgeously.

Gavin Lee, as the kindly Cockney chimney sweep, Bert, who helps her efforts, is just as captivating. Even with a faceful of soot, he beams with charisma in the role he originated in the London production, which opened in December 2004. (I saw that show early in its run, and Broadway's version is brighter and loads more fun.)

Songs by Richard and Robert Sherman from the 1964 film, including "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Jolly Holiday," "Feed the Birds" and "A Spoonful of Sugar," are brought to life beautifully. Standout new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe include "Practically Perfect," Mary's witty anthem of self-love, and "Anything Can Happen," a rousing, optimistic number near the close of the show. They fit so smoothly with the originals, you almost don't know they're add-ons. The dark-toned number "Temper, Temper" - in which toys serve up some tough love - is a noisy non sequitur.

Matthew Bourne's choreography is athletic and exuberant (even statues can't resist pirouetting) and hits a dizzying peak in "Step in Time," a giddy gathering of tap-dancing chimney sweeps.

Bob Crowley's costumes and sets are eye-poppers. The main set of the Banks home moves upstairs, downstairs and into the kiddies' chamber. The elaborate and complicated set design comes at a cost though - several scene changes come slowly.

In supporting roles, Rebecca Luker is luminous as Winifred and turns the new song "Being Mrs. Banks" into a genuinely emotional moment. Daniel Jenkins does his best to flesh out the cardboard role of the workaholic George. Jane Carr, as the housemaid, and Ruth Gottschall, as George's heartless former nanny, who gets a dose of her own nasty medicine, are standouts in the large cast.

Whether you're 7 or 70, "Mary Poppins" is a jolly holiday - and you'll be glad you took it.


New York Daily News
11/17/2006

New York Post: "No Stoppin' This 'Poppins'"

Lovely! With her carpetbag, a parrot-headed umbrella for airy transport and the rare ability to slide up banisters, the inimitable heroine of "Mary Poppins" put down and took off at the New Amsterdam last night, courtesy of Cameron Mackintosh, Walt Disney and the original author, P.L. Travers.

"Mary Poppins" was fine as a Disney movie and is even better as this Broadway musical, imported sound and whole from London's West End. Let's play cute and call it - and the cast led by Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee, Daniel Jenkins and Rebecca Luker -supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Or words to that effect.

This story - of a supernanny who literally descends upon the unruly, unhappy Banks family on 17 Cherry Tree Lane, somewhere in Edwardian London, proceeds to restore order and then just as literally takes off into the heavens - has its own built-in magic.

And it's a magic that the musical, with its urbane and knowing book by Julian Fellowes, cleverly evokes in a manner a little darker, more mysterious and a good deal more authentic to the novel than the overly jolly movie version.

Most of the music, of course, is taken from the film's original score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, so you probably go in humming the tunes. But the new and amiable songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe make a decent fit, and the whole patchwork, orchestrated by William David Brohn, has just that right Broadway belt and lilt.

What makes Mackintosh currenliy the best producer on Broadway and the West End is his creative touch and the manner in which he picks his collaborators, places them on the same page, and makes sure they stay there.

"Mary Poppins" looks and sounds complete - a perfectly engineered piece of musical theater.

The staging by Richard Eyre and co-director Matthew Bourne and choreography (Bourne and Stephen Mear) seem seamless, although perhaps Bourne, with a set of smoothly energized and imaginative dance numbers, deserves the most laurels.

But there's also Bob Crowley's superbly inventive scenery and costumes, Howard Harrison's lighting and the terrific stage effects for which I presume we tip our cap, in part, to technical director David Benken. It's a show that looks good enough to eat.

The production appears smoother and perhaps slicker than it did in London- and the ensemble is a lot crisper, especially in its dancing. The leading and featured roles are perhaps in places a little more questionable.

The standout is Gavin Lee as Bert, the Cockney sweep/handyman, the role played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie. Lee, who hails from the London production, has all of Van Dyke's dash and insouciance, while dancing up a storm, not to mention up and around the proscenium arch in gravity-defying fashion.

Having brought in Lee, it was perhaps a pity not to have also imported his incandescent English co-star Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary Poppins. That said, Ashley Brown, despite difficulty with that acutely English accent trademarked by the film's Julie Andrews, grows on one. Her acidulated charm, occasional wicked smile and schoolmarm authority finally prove totally endearing.

The parents Banks - stuffy, inhibited George and flustered and confused Winifred - are played with commanding zest by fine, youngish Broadway veterans, Daniel Jenkins and the lovely Rebecca Luker.

As the children Banks (there are three different pairs), Katherine Leigh Doherty and Matthew Gumley were excellent, as were the Banks' servants, a resourceful Jane Carr as Mrs. Brill and a nicely wary Mark Price as Robertson Ay. A kind word is also due Ruth Gottschall, who screeched most effectively as that governess from the past, the dreaded Miss Andrew.

Film musicals don't normally translate well into stage versions - think "Singing in the Rain" - but "Mary Poppins" doesn't simply translate, it transcends. This is a great show that, for first time this season, has Broadway singing again.


New York Post
11/17/2006

New York Times: "Meddler on the Roof"

She glides through the skies like an umbrella-powered stealth bomber, ever ready to dump her cargo of good advice on unsuspecting households. When she touches ground, on the stage of the New Amsterdam Theater, you can’t help noticing that while she looks like Joan Crawford trying to be nice, she sounds more like Dr. Phil.

Well, it took ’em long enough, didn’t it? I mean, it’s been two years since that reality series first appeared on the Fox network, the one in which stern British women shake up and shape up clueless parents with hopeless children. But it wasn’t until last night that “Nanny 911: The Musical” finally opened on Broadway.

Oops; my apologies. The correct title of the handsome, homily-packed and rather tedious show at the New Amsterdam is “Mary Poppins.” But I think my confusion is understandable. Though based on the classic fantasy book series by P. L. Travers and the 1964 Disney movie it inspired, this megamusical is ultimately less concerned with inexplicable magic than with practical psychology.

True, the title character (played by the fierce-smiling Ashley Brown) still works the sort of sorcery that only high-end Broadway budgets allow: she flies; she slides up banisters; she makes cuddly toys turn as menacing as Chucky; and whenever Bob Crowley’s spectacular Edwardian set threatens to fall apart, she restores order to chaos with a wave of her gloved hands.

But be warned. In this high-pedigree show — produced by the Disney company and Cameron Mackintosh and staged by the eminent British director Richard Eyre and the wunder-choreographer Matthew Bourne — every act of sorcery comes with a fortune-cookie life lesson attached. The operating philosophy, it would seem, is that a spoonful of spectacle helps the medicine go down.

This almost Puritanical suspicion of theatrical enchantment for its own sake keeps “Mary Poppins” from ever achieving the undiluted wonder of, say, the opening sequence of that most successful of Disney Broadway ventures, “The Lion King.” Even young children with great patience (is that an oxymoron?) may grow restless with the implicit lecturing between those moments when Mary flies, literally and figuratively. (The show runs a hefty 2 hours 45 minutes.)

While the show uses many of the bubbly Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman songs of the Disney film (with new ones in the same vein by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe), the re-creators of “Mary Poppins” have said they wanted to restore Ms. Travers’s original sensibility, including a mysticism that is by no means pure Church of England.

Certainly a dark-clouded, Jungian air pervaded the “Mary Poppins” that opened nearly two years ago at the Prince Edward Theater in London, where it continues to run. Its predominant palette when I saw it was gray. Then there was that notorious scene where the Banks children, Mary Poppins’s charges, were sentenced to death by firing squad by their own toys.

The show’s producers seem to have figured out that gray is not the favorite color of Americans. So cake-frosting pinks, greens, lilacs and yellows have, for the most part, pushed away sootier tones. As for those vengeful toys, well, they still get angry, but not homicidal. Nothing remains here to frighten anyone, except possibly diabetics.

If this sanitizing of the exotic in “Mary Poppins” makes it more digestible for young children, it also makes it less arresting for adults. When I saw it in London two years ago, “Mary Poppins” was a show divided between its shadowy id and its can-do super-ego, which set the prescriptions of self-help books to music.

In New York it is made clear that the heart of this show is not in the starry skies to which Mary ascends in the finale — or even among the rooftops where Mary’s B.F.F., Bert (Gavin Lee), works as a chimney sweep — but somewhere closer to the kitchen sink.

Be grateful, then, that Mr. Crowley has provided a gloriously detailed, multileveled home for the unhappy Banks clan. There, neatly laid out for resolution, are the problems of George (Daniel Jenkins), the banker, who thinks making money is more important than spending time with his family; his wife, Winifred (Rebecca Luker), a former actress who ponders the identity problems of “being Mrs. Banks”; and little Jane and Michael (with three children rotating in each part), who misbehave only because they want their daddy’s attention.

“Mary Poppins” as a study of an unhappy family in need of healing comes more from the Disney movie, which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, than from the Travers stories. But the script by Julian Fellowes (of the film “Gosford Park”) and the new songs suffer from squeezing the complexities of domestic dysfunction into the rhythms of a singalong children’s wonderland. Mr. Jenkins and Ms. Luker are excellent as the troubled spouses and give the show a much-needed emotional center.

But you can’t help being embarrassed for them when their characters’ problems are reduced to chipper mantras about self-empowerment and getting in touch with your feelings. Mr. Banks, it turns out, was himself the victim of a repressive harridan of a nanny, who makes a return in the form of a “Shockheaded Peter”-style gargoyle, played by Ruth Gottschall.

Could this “Mary Poppins” have been created for the English stage before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales — the event (as the current movie “The Queen” reminds us) that made it O.K. for Britons to emote in public? The show’s most significant progression isn’t about the children, but about Mr. Banks, who learns to stop recoiling when his wife tries to kiss him and to value quality time with the kids over making money.

As for the show’s title character, the poor thing doesn’t really have much of a personality other than that of an animated healing force. Ms. Brown introduces a few campy gestures to assure us that she has a sense of humor about all this, even if Mary doesn’t.

She sings prettily and dances with spirited efficiency, though it’s the rubbery Mr. Lee, as the cockney-of-all-trades Bert, who gets the showstoppers, including a sequence that has him astonishingly tapping his way around the proscenium arch. Mr. Lee also serves as a chipper (and sometimes irritatingly smug) narrator, delivering folk-wise sung introductions to many scenes.

Even the fantasy numbers seem to exist principally for didactic purposes. That multicolored “Jolly Holiday” scene, in which discreetly naked statues come to life in a park, introduces a lonely little statue whose greatest wish (like Michael’s) is to reconnect with his father. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” has the jaunty instructiveness of a “Sesame Street” spelling lesson.

The liveliest dancing comes in the “Step in Time” sequence, where chimney sweeps tap like troupers from “42nd Street” on the rooftops of London(a setting that allows the sage Bert to observe, “Troubles are never so bad when you can look at them from a little higher up”). But the show reserves another, newly created and numbingly inspirational song for its climax.

It’s called “Anything Can Happen,” and in it Mary achieves her apotheosis as an advice guru. As lamplighters swirl around her like Ice Capades dancers and star patterns of light fly over the audience, Ms. Brown’s Mary lets her eyes mist up and her smile turn sacred as she and Bert declaim, “Broaden your horizon/Open different doors/You may find a you there you never knew was yours.”

Well, I certainly hope so, Miss Poppins. But with all due respect, that heavy invisible volume on family counseling that you tote around with you makes it hard for any magical nanny to fly beyond familiar horizons.


New York Times
11/16/2006

Variety: "Mary Poppins"

The partnership between producing powerhouses Disney and Cameron Mackintosh was bound to yield a mega-"Mary Poppins." With the behemoth shows that led the British invasion of Broadway in the 1980s, Mackintosh made "bigger is better" his manifesto. And Disney's ventures into musical theater can hardly be called modest in scale. So it's perhaps not surprising the lavish adaptation of P.L. Travers' beloved stories of a magical nanny is somewhat overstuffed. That quibble aside, the show is also bursting with dazzling stagecraft, stunning design, old-fashioned storytelling virtues and genuine charm.

Mackintosh and Disney have assembled an impressive creative pool that includes Richard Eyre, a director versed in classics and new works; choreographer and co-director Matthew Bourne, who has re-energized dance with his cinematically inspired ballets; screenwriter Julian Fellowes, whose work on "Gosford Park" made him an experienced navigator of bustling English households; and designer Bob Crowley, whose eye-popping sets eclectically reference Christopher Wren, Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and beyond.

With such distinctive personalities involved, this clearly was not going to be a straight-up translation of the 1963 Disney movie, often accused of putting a saccharine gloss on Travers' stories -- starting with the title character. While Julie Andrews forever painted the nanny in the kindly "Spoonful of Sugar" mode, Travers' creation was altogether more tart. Probably no one's ideal employee, Mary Poppins was strictly no-nonsense -- vain, discourteous and rarely compliant.

When the show bowed in London in 2004, the character leaned decidedly in the author's direction. Laura Michelle Kelly was so severe in the role that one hoped money was being put aside for the Banks children's therapy bills. On Broadway, she's no less self-governing and strong-willed and, in the form of Ashley Brown, she has the defiant chin of a cartoon astronaut. But the part has been subtly softened. Her clipped diction, clasped hands and stiff poise make it clear this Mary is nobody's servant. But with Brown's warm manner and crisp soprano, her benevolence is never in doubt.

Fellowes has focused on Mary as a healing spirit for a dysfunctional family, displayed like lab rats in Crowley's enchanting three-story Edwardian doll's house set. George Banks (Daniel Jenkins) is a slave to his career, determined to push his former actress wife, Winifred (Rebecca Luker), into a more elevated social circle while devoting little time and attention to his unruly children, Jane and Michael (Katherine Leigh Doherty and Matthew Gumley, respectively, alternating with two other actors in each role).

Umbrella and carpetbag in hand, Mary flies in on the east wind to set things right and then flies away to the west to wherever she's needed next, forming no attachments.

While the show's twin pursuits of fantasy and family counseling are not entirely harmonious, Fellowes' book installs a neat symmetry of opposites that the famously punctilious Travers might have admired. This is evident in two of the new numbers by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who also adapted the lyrics of the Sherman Bros. songs popularized in the film. Mr. Banks advocates "Precision and Order" while Mary preaches "Anything Can Happen If You Let It."

That sense of contrast is everywhere in the show: In the well-heeled folks strolling in the park and the soot-stained chimney sweeps cavorting on London's rooftops; in the desire to accumulate wealth that drives George's bank cronies and the gentle call to "Feed the Birds" of the ragged old woman (Cass Morgan) outside St. Paul's Cathedral; in the wintry gray shades of reality and the watercolor wonderland opened up by Mary in "Jolly Holiday" (in which Bourne's touch is evident in the prancing statues).

It's also there in Mary's cure-all remedy of "A Spoonful of Sugar" vs. the "Brimstone and Treacle" favored by George's childhood nanny Miss Andrew (Ruth Gottschall). The latter number, however, feels like an add-on that exists merely to accommodate a villain. Likewise "Temper, Temper," in which toys come menacingly to life to discipline the ill-behaved Banks tykes. Reports that the scene will terrify infants seem exaggerated, but the superfluous song brings about an intrusive tonal shift.

There seems to be an unspoken rule that shows have to skirt three hours or London audiences will feel swindled. On Broadway, greater economy is welcomed and the producers' refusal to trim more than 10 minutes from "Mary Poppins" will challenge the attention span of children, especially in the protracted 90-minute first act. But reprise-laden excesses aside, there's much to savor here.

With minor exceptions including "I Love to Laugh," the unlamented "Sister Suffragette" and one regrettable casualty, the lovely lullaby "Stay Awake," all the Sherman standards are here, entertainingly reconceived by Eyre and Bourne.

Bourne and co-choreographer Stephen Mear's athletic dance routines are at their liveliest in "Jolly Holiday" and the rambunctious rooftop tap number, "Step in Time," while "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is animated by fun semaphore spelling moves. "Spoonful of Sugar" is played for comedy, with the Banks' kitchen collapsing in chaos only to be reassembled with a flick of Mary's wrist. But it's the simpler staging that often captivates most, in the melancholy "Feed the Birds" or the joyous "Let's Go Fly a Kite."

Of the new songs, Mary's glowing self-assessment, "Practically Perfect," is a tuneful addition, and "Being Mrs. Banks," gorgeously sung by Luker, provides touching insight into the insecurities of a loving but underappreciated wife.

Principals and ensemble are solid all around, with Jenkins providing emotional ballast as George, whose sensitization is the story's central journey. But without detracting from the engaging Brown, the show's guiding spirit is Gavin Lee's Bert, the original London cast's sole carryover.

A lithe beanpole who handles dance duties with infectious ease, Lee saunters through the show on rubberized legs, wearing a grin that won't quit. He makes the expanded role of Bert as charmed, chipper and enigmatic a figure as Mary, threading together the action with occasional snatches of "Chim Chim Cher-ee." And his seeming authenticity helps erase the memory of Dick Van Dyke's bizarre Cockney accent in the film.

Mary's climactic ascent, soaring above the orchestra seats almost within arm's reach of the mezzanine and balcony before disappearing into the heavens, is a feat both simple and enthralling. But Bert almost steals the show in "Step in Time" as he taps his way up and around the entire proscenium arch. While there's no shortage of scenic wizardry on display here, it's a beguiling touch that this show's two most memorable, awe-inspiring effects have a human face.


Variety
11/16/2006

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