Broadway's 'Mary Poppins' Flies but Doesn't Soar

Gavin Lee re-creates on Broadway his London stage role of chimney sweep Bert.
Gavin Lee re-creates on Broadway his London stage role of chimney sweep Bert. (By Joan Marcus)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

NEW YORK -- Up, up and away the young lady with the umbrella drifts, like a leaf stolen by an autumn gust. Watching her float into ever-thinner air in the last seconds of the new stage version of "Mary Poppins," you're acquainted once again with Disney's singular brand of painstaking wizardry.

Yet as Mary levitates to meet the eyes of ticket holders in the upper balcony of the New Amsterdam Theatre, where "Mary Poppins" opened Thursday night, you might be surprised to find yourself wondering: Why do so few other moments in this lavish show make us feel that we're on a particularly jolly holiday?

True, Mary's departure -- akin to the ascension of one of the Greek goddesses in the plays of Shakespeare -- qualifies her as the most bewitching thing to hover over a Broadway audience in years. The artistry that permits her to soar above us consigns other flying objects (such as the airborne chandelier in that Phantom-crazed musical a few blocks away) to the status of dimmer bulbs.

If a few mechanical marvels are enough for you (or your little ones), then the charms of this highly anticipated adaptation of the 1964 movie musical will not feel too fleeting or sporadic. But anyone hoping that this show -- staged by director Richard Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne -- would provide much in the way of robust musical pleasure or emotional sustenance is likely to find it a wee bit of a letdown.

All the va-va-va-voom is contained here in the environment created by designer Bob Crowley. The new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that supplement the Poppins standards by the Sherman brothers, Richard M. and Robert B., are fairly flaccid. In other words, what this "Mary Poppins" primarily has going for it is sets appeal.

Eyre and the book writer Julian Fellowes have tried to make the stage version a more psychologically nuanced portrait of the Bankses, the well-to-do London family for whom Mary comes to work. In particular, the tribulations of the Banks parents (played by Daniel Jenkins and Rebecca Luker) come under a much deeper kind of scrutiny than in the movie.

Mr. Banks, unfulfilled as a bank loan officer and angrily nursing grievances from his own childhood, lashes out at his children, and even manhandles his son. Bored, depressed Mrs. Banks, meanwhile, having been forced by her husband to give up an acting career, glumly wanders the rooms of the nifty house Crowley has laid out for her.

Adult pain, naturally, is bequeathed to the children (portrayed by Matthew Gumley and Katherine Leigh Doherty at the performance I saw), who long for the firm-yet-gentle hand that Mary Poppins provides. (It all puts you in mind of one of those reality shows in which an English babysitter counsels a tortured American brood. Think of this as "Nanny 911: The Musical.")

A minor problem is that the children, good actors both, never quite seem the monstrous brats they're advertised to be: the sort who would chew up and spit out nannies the way other kids go through peanut butter. As a result, "Temper, Temper" -- a song near the end of the first act, in which the children's vengeful toys come to life to put them on trial for supposed high crimes -- feels as if it's much ado about misdemeanors.

A bigger problem has to do with the portrayal of Mary herself. It's clear that Mary, as drawn in the stories of P.L. Travers, was never meant to be as saccharine as "A Spoonful of Sugar" makes her out. In this incarnation, however, she's neither sweet nor sour: She has almost no personality at all. In the placid mien and clipped vowels of Ashley Brown, Mary seems not so much a calming influence as she does an automaton. She walks and talks with a robotic briskness.

Brown, possessed of a fine voice, wages an uphill battle with the memory of Julie Andrews, who had the ability to radiate warmth as well as efficiency. This new recruit to the role conveys only the competent dimension.

Gavin Lee, who played Bert the chimney sweep in the London production, tries to fill the charisma gap. And he's trying too hard. He's a deft song-and-dance man who gets the evening's one bit of jaw-dropping acrobatics, during the chimney cleaners' tap number, "Step in Time." (Bourne's dances here are just okay.) But Lee has a habit of turning to the audience and shooting us beseeching grins that seem to say, "You're liking me a lot, aren't you?" It gets old.

As it turns out, Jenkins fares best, playing George Banks as a man with a bona fide streak of goodness waiting to be exposed under an embittered shell. Luker cannot be faulted, either, although her mournful "Being Mrs. Banks" is typical of the drearier numbers Stiles and Drewe have devised.

Even grimmer is the inclusion of a subplot in which a draconian nanny from George's childhood is brought in to bring order to the house. Mary dispatches her in a particularly cruel way, an off-putting twist that affirms the notion that the drawing-board stage was when this "Mary Poppins" could have benefited from some magical intervention.

Mary Poppins, book by Julian Fellowes, original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, new songs and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Directed by Richard Eyre. Co-direction and choreography, Matthew Bourne; sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Howard Harrison; orchestrations, William David Brohn; music director, Brad Haak. With Cass Morgan, Jane Carr, Mark Price, Ruth Gottschall, Michael McCarty. About 2 hours 40 minutes. At New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway and West 42nd Street, New York. Call 212-307-4747 or visit

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