Theatre review: Mary Poppins overcomes its darker story

Like the rest of the props Mary Poppins pulls from her bottomless carpet bag, there is enough Disney magic inside to overcome this darker story of the original Supernanny.

A fusion of both the 1964 Disney film and the series of children’s books by P. L. Travers, for those of us who grew up with the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke movie, this Mary Poppins is both familiar and foreign. For example, the wildly popular “Step In Time” remains relatively untouched atop the rooftops of London but the dancing penguins are replaced by dancing statues and poor Uncle Albert never gets an opportunity to die laughing.

In this stage version there is a bigger emphasis on the dysfunctional nature of the Banks family and while it was admittedly nice to see some of the sugary sweetness of the film toned down, to make this spicier version work you need a Mary Poppins that can provide a suitable balance.  Rachel Wallace, who returns in the title role from the extended Toronto run that ended earlier this year, can’t always seem to find that balance.  Granted she has an uphill battle; in the film version when she sings about being perfect in every way it is without an ounce of pretension, but here it comes across as full-on vanity.

Understudy Con O’Shea-Creal stepped in as Bert for opening night and while he is likeable enough in the role his singing often times felt out-of-breath.  Where he amazed though was in his fearlessness, especially as he not only walks up the wall of the proscenium, in one of the biggest pieces of Disney magic, he actually dances upside down across the top of the arch and back down the other side.

The Banks children, played by Marissa Ackerman and Zach Timson on opening night (they alternate each night with two other young actors), sing well and surprisingly I had the easiest time understanding them through their accents of anyone on stage.  As the patriarch of the family, Michael Dean Morgan brings some of the most realized and heartfelt moments of the show; his initial moment of realization that banking and humanity can co-exist would have melted even the hardest heart at Lehman Brothers (or maybe even HSBC).

The cast of the Broadway Across Canada production of Mary Poppins.  Photo by Deen Van Meer.
The cast of the Broadway Across Canada production of Mary Poppins.  Photo by Deen Van Meer.

Where this production, and where so many Disney shows that have gone before it really dazzle, are in the visual effects and there are so many magical moments that it is hard to resist the entire show.  Whether it is the pop-up book set and the eye-popping scenery transitions in “Jolly Holiday” from Bob Crowley or Mary flying through the sky holding her trademark parrot umbrella, the show is a visual treat.

While the residents of Cherry Tree Lane and the wild characters that come to visit are much scarier than in its film cousin, the magic created by the theatrical version of the Disney Imagineers still makes it for a nice place to visit.

3 Out of 5 Stars Mary Poppins

Original music and lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman.  Book by Julian Fellowes.  Additional songs, music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  Directed by Richard Eyre.  On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through July 22, 2012.  Visit http://www.broadwayacrosscanada.ca for tickets and information.

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