If you want to know whether Mary Poppins flies in the Olney Theatre Center’s new staging of the musical that ran on Broadway from 2006 to 2013, she does. Umbrella up and toes pointed out, she’s the magical nanny of your childhood memories.
The audience gazes up and cheers, yet in this busy, large-scaled “Mary Poppins” it’s not the special effects but Mary’s quizzically weird demeanor that’s practically perfect. Patricia Hurley delivers a wonderfully enigmatic performance as Poppins: She’s full of tricks yet cool as can be. Poppins is sourly disapproving of all the anger she observes in the unhappy household she’s come to set right, and Hurley tartly registers this while naturally radiating a benevolent warmth that this hard-working, over-conceived Disney-Cameron Mackintosh musical badly needs.
For some of us, the “Mary Poppins” of “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was always a little too eager to please, even in its widely adored 1964 movie version. The stage musical is heavier, in every way. The tone of the book by Julian Fellowes (prior to his “Downton Abbey” triumph) doesn’t mine the dark seams of the original P.L. Travers stories to good effect, and the hard-wired machinery ranges from crashing kitchen disasters to balmy flying kites. The story is not so much staged as it is engineered.
The London-Broadway production was famously complicated; I’m not convinced the show would have run so long without Bert the cheerful chimney sweep capering straight up and around the proscenium arch in a stunt worthy of Cirque du Soleil. That eye-popping maneuver is not part of Jason King Jones’s staging, yet almost inevitably this “Poppins” has the feel of a weightlifting exercise.
What it wants, of course, is whimsy, and at times it blooms in Jones’s unquestionably ambitious production. Mary’s magic is charming in the early going, thanks to a nifty bit of illusion as she takes charge in the kids’ bedroom. Also enchanting is a lively outdoor ballet led by a surprising figure. No spoiler here, but Erik Teague’s costumes create a notably good effect.
Another asset is Karl Kippola’s appealing turn as Mr. Banks, the frosty-hearted father whose layers get peeled back to childhood rather nicely. Oddly, Kippola’s Mr. Banks winds up as one of the most relatable characters in this production, although the Banks kids, Michael and Jane, were played with impish glee by young Tyler Quentin Smallwood and Katharine Ford at Saturday’s opening. But then the script is weighted with lamentably dull roles for the ineffectual mother (whose mournful ballads are sung well, at least, by Eileen Ward) and the predictably mean nanny Miss Andrew (a fully dastardly Valerie Leonard), whose punish-the-kids number “Brimstone & Treacle” is sour medicine indeed.
Tara Jeanne Vallee’s big, pleasant dance numbers include full-stage tap routines for “Supercali. . .” (etc.) and “Step in Time,” with Rhett Guter’s jaunty Bert flashing slightly more limber moves than anyone else. Daniel Ettinger’s set design capably sweeps the story from inside the Banks family’s big house to the rooftops of London, and Timothy Splain’s nine-piece orchestra ably delivers familiar old songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” which is where most of the score’s fun lies. (The new tunes often labor to amp up the drama.) Jones gives you lots to look at — I haven’t even mentioned the puppets yet — and keeps things moving. Undoubtedly this will feel like a full night’s entertainment for plenty of adults and kids, even though it’s a feat to make some of this unduly dense material feel carefree.
The evening’s most effective weapon by far is Hurley, looking entirely Poppins-like in her prim blue jacket, dancing with graceful precision and singing sweetly while flashing an inscrutable smile. Hurley inhabits the mystery of Mary with sublime composure and aplomb: She’s fascinating and otherworldly, even before she actually lifts off.
Mary Poppins Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe; book by Julian Fellowes; co-created by Cameron Mackintosh. Directed by Jason King Jones. Lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design, Jeffrey Dorfman; illusions consultant, Jim Steinmeyer; flying effects by D2 Flying Effects; puppet designer, Matthew Pauli. About 2½ hours. Through Jan. 1 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Tickets $43-$80. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.