Though Mary Poppins is a staple in the Disney library, and most children from 5-80 know the umbrella-riding nanny, few could tell you that P.L. Travers, the author of the original Poppins books, was Australian Pamela Travers, a former actress.
Those of us who equate Mary Poppins with the indomitable Julie Andrews, that sweet-singing actress from England, remember the 1964 movie version of the story coated with the Disney magic and paired with the loose-limbed dancer, Dick Van Dyke. Few would recognize the differences between the movie and the books, but there are a few; and the musical version now on stage at Durham Performing Arts Center is more closely aligned with P.L Travers’ book versions than with Disney’s cinematography. However, depending on which version audience members identify with, the stage version is either a stupendous success or a mystical, magical version of a tale well-told, no matter who tells it.
Like other staples in the Disney arsenal, the Mary Poppins’ stories blend a tale of relationships between parents and children and the power of magic and imagination. Travers’ story of a dysfunctional family ruled by a workaholic father and his ever-loving wife is embroidered with scenes that imagine a child’s sense of play and wonder.
Poppins herself is the link between the two worlds, and the mediator that finally clears the scrim that keeps those two worlds apart. Poppins equals love, the panacea for all ills; but she herself cannot embrace it. As with the movie version, the theater show keeps Poppins and her paramour, the chimney sweep Bert, apart, so that she can weave her magic for the Banks family.
One of the reasons this story still resonates with movie and theatergoers is because it is about the relationships in the family rather than simply a story immersed in disconnected magical realism. Disney understood the main themes of that relationship, as does Cameron Mackintosh, the theater producer responsible for such megahits as Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and Cats. His version of Mary Poppins is currently working on three continents, and has won 44 major theater awards, grossing over $644 million in its time on international stages since its opening in 2006.
Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplays for Gosford Park and Vanity Fair, is the scriptwriter for this show, and the Olivier Award-winning team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have written new songs for the show.
Perhaps the most spectacular part of this Broadway production, however, is the sets, designed by Tony Award® winner Bob Crawley. When the show opens, the set appears a simple one, showing the house on Cherry Street; but that house opens like a pop-up children’s book, splitting in half to show the downstairs of the Banks’ house.
Later in the show, the house folds in on itself, the splits again, this time horizontally, to reveal the children’s bedrooms, and then to depict the rooftop scene that becomes home for the troupe of chimney sweeps that Bert (played by Con O’Shea-Creal) leads. To say that these scenes are one of the most effective characters in the show would not be an understatement. In fact, those sets often upstage the singers/dancers. In only one scene do the actors dominate the stage: the “Step in Time” number where Bert, Mary, and the chimney sweeps tap their way all over the rooftops is one of the only times that the characters do not rely on the fantastic stage to weave its magic for them.
However, the story is of the Banks family and their “guardian nanny-angel” Mary Poppins; and that story is the reason for the characters and the set and the dance sequences. Madeline Trumble, who plays the magical nanny, arrives on stage with the usual fanfare and introduces herself with a trembling “Practically Perfect” definition. The children, Jane and Michael (Madison Ann Mullahey and Zachary Mackiewicz) express the appropriate surprise at her apparent magic and are understandably bratty, given that their uncaring father (played by Chris H. Hoch) and their bewildered mother (Kerry Conte) are not participating in their children’s rearing.
One must consider the statement Travers was making on the disconnect between parents and children in 19th century London when she wrote the story. The comfort the children find in their nanny fills the gap that is left by basically absent parents, and that is a relationship not uncommon during that era. That theme also speaks to today’s working parents who are often leaving children in the care of nanny-type sitters who might provide children with an ability and longing to play, as Mary Poppins does for the Banks children.
That necessity to relax and to play, to imagine a world beyond their own reality, is what Mary introduces Jane and Michael to. The image of leading children outside their bedroom windows is repeated in other Disney stories (i.e., Peter Pan) and the scene where Mary leads them to enjoy a “Jolly Holiday” is one where the set design takes on a life of its own. The drab streets of London disappeared to reveal a world that only exists in a child’s imagination. The children in the audience sat on the edges of their seats as the park Mary and Bert bring the children literally explodes in color with giant flowers transforming the stage into a giant garden that seemed painted with an interior light not provided with any sort of candlepower.
That magic reappears in an understated way in the “Feed the Birds” sequence, as well as in “Playing the Game,” where all the toys come to life and take over the children’s bedroom. In “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” another nod to the innocence of children is made, and more magic widens the eyes of the children in the audience.
There are several moments in the production where major characters take the stage for a solo, but those moments pale in comparison to the phenomenal sets. Madeline Trumble’s voice quavers so much that one longs for a moment when it’s strong and even. Con O’Shea-Creal does not have the charisma of Dick Van Dyke, though the “Step in Time” sequence is worth the wait. It’s a rousing rendition where everything and everyone comes alive.
For the child in all of us, Mary Poppins is the acceptable entry into the enchanted world of imagination, and if for no other reason than to unleash the child inside all of us, this production of the show is worthy of the price of a seat.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 13th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x1733193187/REVIEW-It-s-a-Jolly-Holiday-with-Mary-Poppins (Note 1: You must register to read this article). (Note 2: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 12th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/02/madeline-trumble-and-con-oshea-creal-star-as-mary-and-bert-in-mary-poppins-feb-12-17-at-dpac/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents MARY POPPINS at 7:30 p.m. Feb 14, 8 p.m. Feb 15, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb 16, and 1 and 6:30p.m. Feb 17 at DPAC, in the American Tobacco District, at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $48-$116 (including fees), except $17.50 Student Rush Tickets in Row P of the Balcony (sold the day of the performance).
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-2787 or http://www.dpacnc.com/events/how_to_buy_tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1320016.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-281-0587 or Groups@DPACnc.com.
SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: http://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series.
Mary Poppins (character): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Poppins (Wikipedia).
P.L. Travers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._L._Travers (Wikipedia).
Mary Poppins (1964 film): http://disneydvd.disney.go.com/mary-poppins-45th-anniversary-special-edition.html (official DVD website), https://www.facebook.com/waltdisneymarypoppins (Facebook page), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Poppins_%28film%29 (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058331/ (Internet Movie Database).
Mary Poppins (2006 musical): http://www.marypoppins.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Poppins_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).
The Tour: http://www.marypoppins.com/ (official website). The Tour Cast: http://www.marypoppins.com/cast/_touring_cast (official web page).
The Creative Team: http://www.marypoppins.com/cast/_creative_team (official web page).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.
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