A Jolly Holiday

Mary Poppins takes classic story to new heights

It’s touching (if a little disturbing) how much we’ll suspend sound judgment for Disney.
Modern grown-ups are seasoned to X-ray movies, books, and TV shows for their social and political themes. Yet, somehow, despite plenty of criticism to encourage otherwise, when the glistening Disney castle appears on screen, the The Lion King’s racial prototypes couldn’t matter less. Hakuna matata!
Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins, on tour at the Belk Theater until September 19, has that kind of lubricating effect. During the first act, that discerning, critical audience member that lives in your Type A cranial lobe will spitfire memos about the show’s turn-of-the-century tropes.
“Ah, the historic divide between the public and private spheres,” it might nag when George Banks (Laird Mackintosh) tells his wife that the “children and servants” are all “her domain,” or when the magical nanny answers the Bankses’ prayers with her transcendent domestic abilities.
To be fair to the insufferable, habitual know-it-all ruining your play Mary Poppins is an old story. Moreover, this production, directed by Richard Eyre, amps up that 19th century preoccupation with women and men, the household and the workplace, and the gap between the two nearly as much as it does “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The songs added by composers and arrangers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe—“Being Mrs. Banks,” “Precision and Order,” “Practically Perfect,” and a few others—make it hard to ignore the subtext.
Even the magnificent set suggests the containment of the household, with the Bankses’ home rendered as a giant box that literally spins and unfolds on stage, revealing cross-sections of the house for the audience.
While the staging of the production is undeniably effective and just plain cool, I’m not sure how much the new songs add to the musical’s effect. Turning Mary Poppins into a “message” piece feels a little forced, and some of the introspective moments feel like pauses while you’re waiting for choreographer Matthew Bourne’s handiwork to take over the stage again.
That said, the musical numbers are worth the wait. When you combine already catchy, memorable songs with world-class talent, Disney on Broadway production budgets, and the vision of five-time Tony-winning scenery and costume designer Bob Crowley, it’s difficult for the results to be much less than spectacular.
The lightening fast choreography and fantastical set of Mrs. Corry’s old shop during the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number will handily shut any critical eye you’d stubbornly been holding to the stage.
The “Step in Time” rendition is another stunning, ensemble accomplishment.  The tap-dancing chimney sweeps keep their lively, dusty steps…well, in time. And it’s here that (once you shut your jaw) you’ll have to tip your hat to Dominic Roberts, the show’s charming, lively Bert. I don’t care what kind of cable work is making it happen; anyone who tap dances upside down under the overhanging curtains of the Belk Theater’s stage should get hand-burning applause.
Of course, the dazzling scenery, costumes, and choreography don’t make the show by themselves. Leading the production by the collar is Caroline Sheen (Mary Poppins). When the entire civilized world has a child-like attachment to Julie Andrews as the one-and-only Mary, executing a convincing portrayal of the magical nanny is, to say the least, a challenge. But Sheen’s easy, whimsical demeanor and crystalline soprano make the transition a smooth, almost welcome one.  
Foiling Sheen’s angelic performance is Ellen Harvey, in her brief appearance as Miss Andrew, the Wicked Witch of London. Harvey is nothing short of show-stopping. Her horrifying, grandiose entrance is an operatic achievement, and makes “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” look almost quiet.
Its these enchanting performances and musical numbers that make Mary Poppins the incredible show it is; you’ll find the Belk Theater full of awestruck families twirling their way up the aisles after curtain close.  
So we think it may not hurt to switch off your instinct to chew over a play’s “meaning” for a night. Because beautiful, extravagant scenery, classic characters, and a much-needed dose of Disney nostalgia need no more chewing than a spoonful of sugar.

Speaking of nostalgia…

Categories: Arts + Culture, Revue