Monday, July 20, 2009

Mary Poppins, PlayhouseSquare

(Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert)

Some people say it’s wrong to gild a lily. Well, that may be true, if you like a lily just as it is. But if what you really want is a gilded lily, for whatever reason, then you’ve done exactly the right thing.

The same goes for theater. If you want maximum dazzle and high-caloric eye candy for your ticket dollar, you’ll be wading waist-deep in glorious glitz when you attend Mary Poppins, the high-powered Disney/Cameron Mackintosh musical that has now taking PlayhouseSquare by storm. Magnificent color-suffused sets, stunning lighting effects, lavish costumes and jaw-dropping special effects combine to make this show a visual extravaganza.

But what this mega-cruise ship of a musical doesn’t have is compelling characters or, to be frank, heart. Indeed, if Poppins had half the soul of the wise and wistful program note written by Gina Vernaci, the PlayhouseSquare VP of Theatricals (in which she gently muses on the meaning behind the lovely “Feed the Birds” song from the show), this gargantuan production would register much higher on the emotional scale. As it is, the charming story at the heart of the musical feels mechanical and manipulated.

Of course, we all know about Mary and the Banks family from the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. But this version has new songs, written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, to add to the familiar score (“A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. And there are some new characters, including a competing nanny, Miss Andrew, who decades earlier warped father George Banks’ personality, and Mrs. Corry, the owner of a “talk shop” where people, ah, talk.

Labored puns aside, what’s lost in this updated Poppins is the core family drama. George and Winifred Banks seem like extraneous accessories in their own home, a fact not particularly aided by Karl Kenzler’s wooden rendition of George (Note: One can portray a rigid and uptight person without actually being rigid and uptight on stage). As Winifred, Megan Osterhaus is stuck with bland reactions and can do little to invest her part with a pulse.

The kids, Jane and Michael, are as irritating and cute as ever (with four young actors rotating in the roles), but they are not central to the major conflict of daddy losing his job at the bank. As a result, George’s sacking and ultimate re-hiring is more dependent on wise investing than on the magic of laughter (as in the film). This makes the current version more realistic but far less charming.

This touring show is unusual in that it features the two leading performers from the original Broadway cast, with Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert. Brown sings well and invests Mary with ramrod certainty. She is at her funniest when giving free rein to her boundless self esteem (Jane, on the rooftop, looks up at the stars and says, “It all makes you feel so insignificant.” Mary Poppins replies sharply, “Speak for yourself.”). But you never feel any real warmth or zest for life from Brown’s Mary as she glides through each scene in almost ethereal isolation.

Lee, a fine singer and lithe dancer, seems more grounded as Bert, except for his astounding proscenium-circumnavigating dance sequence in the show-stopping “Step In Time.” But even this supposedly lovable chimney sweep seems to hold the audience at arm’s length. And there's never a tuppence worth of chemistry between this Mary and Bert.

Strangely, the character that comes on strongest is Miss Andrew (a wickedly delicious Ellen Harvey), who actually seems more committed to her profession, warped though her approach is, than Mary herself. Also excellent is Mary VanArsdel, who handles the aforementioned “Feed the Birds” with passion and precision.

If you enjoy the spectacle of a full Broadway show, then Mary Poppins will blow your socks off, especially Mary’s final umbrella-borne exit. Just don’t expect the kind of emotional connection that the film generates.

Mary Poppins
Through August 9 at PlayhouseSquare,
State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue,

No comments: