Theater Review: Mary Poppins flies high at Straz Center

For example, Mary and the Children: they bond strongly and convincingly around the middle of act one, and for much of what follows, the onstage business feels superfluous. A couple of new plots present themselves briefly and create some suspense: Will the kids have to crawl for Mary’s opposite, the dour Miss Andrew, and will George lose his irreplaceable job at the bank? But the first question’s answered only minutes after it’s asked, and we never really doubt that George will save his position. So what we get instead of dramatic tension is spectacle – stunning spectacle – and wouldn’t you know it, that’s enough.

From a sky full of kites to a roofscape of tap-dancing chimney sweeps (one of whom dances upside down), from the rousing, cheerful song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to the several reprises of “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” Mary Poppins is just too delightful to diss. Yeah, there are noticeable gaps in the action. But what a visual and aural treat!

And what actors: Every one of them is tiptop, and an expert vocalist and dancer. As Mary, Caroline Sheen is a prim, pert perfectionist, entirely satisfied with herself and about as sexless as Queen Victoria (who also puts in an appearance). As Bert the chimney-sweep – the role that Dick Van Dyke had in the movie – Gavin Lee is wonderfully earnest, unswervingly happy in his high-altitude career and as comfortable with the fact that life is magical as any wide-eyed 6-year-old – or Mary herself.

The wonderful Blythe Wilson is Winifred Banks, a pre-feminist housewife who gave up an acting career for her marriage, and whose inner strength and sincerity brighten any world that she enters; and Laird Mackintosh plays husband George as a victim of his own ignorance, not malicious but uninformed, not cruel but befuddled. The Banks children are brats first, then paragons of enlightened good behavior, and Rachel Izen as housekeeper Mrs. Brill is a curmudgeon with a heart of gold. In fact, everyone in this show has a heart of that metal with the exception of Miss Andrew, the mean, malicious anti-Mary played with hilarious excess by Ellen Harvey.

As to the songs, I admit to preferring those taken from the film – “The Perfect Nanny,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds” and a few others. But the new ones, by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, are pleasant enough, if not terribly memorable. Matthew Bourne’s choreography is superb at every moment, reaching its apogee perhaps when the statue “Neleus” (Tom Souhrada) descends from its pedestal to amaze the children and us. Richard Eyre’s direction is as close to perfect as these things get.

There were more than a few children at the performance that I attended, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves (even the one who cried out “Yuck!” when Mary and Bert chastely kissed). So I’d recommend the show to anyone 7 years old or over. Yes, the subject is really psychic healing, but you don’t have to be Bruno Bettelheim to enjoy a good fairy tale. Mary Poppins is that, and visually spectacular besides. Even with the occasional flaw in its dramatic architecture, it’s rousingly life-affirming — and a lot of fun.

Mary Poppins is, at its core, a fantasy about healing.

At the start, the Banks family is broken: the children are so wild, no nanny can manage them, and paterfamilias George is cold to his wife, fixated on business, and, in general, emotionally unavailable. Into this wounded household comes the magician figure, Mary Poppins, who brings the children happily under control, and helps turn George into a loving husband and caring father. Her methods are literally miraculous: when she’s around, statues come alive, toys dance and sing, a bleak landscape becomes a gloriously colorful park, and a humanoid being — Mary herself — flies.

Of course, this wonder-worker can’t stay: once the Banks family is whole, Mary no longer has a purpose there, and can move on to other screwed-up broods in need of her services. But she leaves with a message: “Anything can happen if you let it.” No damaged being is beyond repair. Keep the faith, and even the most mangled organism can be mended.

It’s clear enough why this parable is appreciated by audiences, adults as well as children, and when you figure in the splendid acting and singing by the Broadway touring company (at Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts), you have lots of good reasons to see an often stirring, lovely show. But I have to warn you: there are moments mid-musical when writer Julian Fellowes more or less answers all urgent questions, leaving us unsure as to why the play’s continuing at all.

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