Theater review: 'Mary Poppins' takes flight but rarely soars at Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

Rumor has it that it's always a jolly holiday with Mary, but during much of Disney's bland, unaffecting stage version of "Mary Poppins," the occasion feels more like the sort you're required to spend with relatives you don't particularly care for.

The musical and its expensive-looking gewgaws arrive in the Kennedy Center Opera House for a Washington premiere 3 1/2 years after debuting on Broadway, and the impression remains of a lumbering show overseen by a steering committee. The buoyant score of the beloved 1964 movie has been grafted onto a sour, Ibsenesque tale of an emotionally stifled household, the result being a production at war with itself, seesawing between candied songs and glum domestic scenes.

A word here to hardworking moms and dads emptying their wallets to give the little ones a night of delight: The kids will probably be okay with this. Though the radiant spirit of the film has been muted, the show rolls out all of the sprightly original melodies by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman: "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and, of course, that bane of copy editors everywhere, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Each song is staged as a big, colorful production number, with one grand choreographic coup reserved for the chimney-sweep tap extravaganza, "Step in Time." In that one, the sweeper-in-chief, Bert, played here as on Broadway by the ingratiating Gavin Lee, performs an acrobatic feat that, along with a final liftoff into the theatrical ether by Caroline Sheen's prim Mary, does prompt a few satisfying oohs and ahhs.

But virtually all the other tinkerings by director Richard Eyre, librettist Julian Fellowes and songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe represent downshifts in the story's impact. Even if the goal is something closer to P.L. Travers's original tales, an added attempt at psychological realism becomes burdensome. Particularly ill-conceived is the effort to give the stiff-backed man of the Banks house, Laird Mackintosh's George, a rationale for miserableness rooted in childhood: It was the fault of his own mean nanny, a gorgon named Miss Andrew (Ellen Harvey), who turns up on Cherry Tree Lane chiefly for the purpose of being dispatched by Mary in a ridiculously cruel way.

While Mrs. Banks was a perky suffragette played by Glynis Johns in the '64 Disney flick, she's imagined here in the guise of Blythe Wilson as a lonely former actress who pines for her husband's attention. (She's given a vapid ballad, "Being Mrs. Banks," to explain herself.) The Banks children, Jane and Michael, portrayed at the performance I attended by Bailey Grey and Carter Thomas, are a lot ornerier than their cinematic forebears, owing, of course, to the fact that their father is emotionally absent and their mother a dishrag.

The magical main character comes to the rescue of this dreary family as if she were a flying counterpart of reality TV's Supernanny. Imagined here as a stern and opaque creature, Mary Poppins makes for a strangely remote central character. Reminding us of her own superiority in "Practically Perfect," she's so self-satisfied that she actually becomes hard to like. (Bert's musical declaration that "when Mary holds your hand, you feel so grand" just doesn't ring true.)

Embodying this cold Victorian goddess -- director Eyre once described her as a sort of "divinity" -- Sheen seems to have been well cast. Her singing voice is solid and she is a livelier presence than Ashley Brown, the actress who originated Mary on Broadway. One can't expect anyone else in the role to be Julie Andrews: It turns out truly to be the case that there is only one of those. But you do feel the absence of the kind of enchantingly magnetic spell Andrews was able to cast in the part.

Bob Crowley's expert design of the Banks's house -- it folds and unfolds, like a page from a pop-out book -- remains an engaging element, and the airborne effects, such as the mingling of the kites in the park and Mary's departures by umbrella, are very nicely executed. Most of Matthew Bourne's choreography, however, is of the garden musical-theater variety, and the costumes for some of the bigger numbers, like the ones devised for that eternally hard-to-spell word, look as if they had been made in an extension-program sewing class.

The Banks children have massive roles in the show, and the young actors playing Jane and Michael prove themselves worthy of their large assignments. The adult imagineers of "Mary Poppins" aren't quite as successful with the homework they've turned in.

Mary Poppins

original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; book by Julian Fellowes; new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Directed by Richard Eyre. Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; music director, James Dodgson. With Rachel Izen, Mary VanArsdel. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Aug. 22 at the Kennedy Center. Visit or call 202-467-4600.

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