THEATER | At the Orpheum, “Mary Poppins” flies high as a kite

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Before reviewing this production billed “Disney and Cameron Mackintosh present Mary Poppins,” I’ll disclose a potential conflict of interest: for three years in the 1990s, I was an employee of the Walt Disney Company. I signed away my right to any animated characters I might have conceived for the duration of my employ and was duly outfitted with a 100% polyester outfit that I wore while folding shirts and greeting visitors at the Faneuil Hall Disney Store. Why? Because the Boston University dorms were depressing, and a Disney Store is a happy place. Say what you will about the big evil Disney corporation, the people who walked into that store were happy.

Mary Poppins, the musical, reminded me of the proposition that Walt Disney proved as no other man has proven it: there is such a thing as mass entertainment that is neither crude nor stupid nor boring, mass entertainment that manages to make millions of people guiltlessly happy. This is not to apologize for Disney’s personal shortcomings, the occasionally outrageous ethnocentrism of his products, or the questionable business ethics demonstrated by Disney and his successors. We should all be lucky enough to be judged by the best of what we’ve accomplished, and Disney entertainment at its best has an inclusive warmth that all entertainment closer to the aesthetic edge—that is to say, the majority of all other entertainment—must forgo as the price of its daring.

mary poppins runs through september 20 at the orpheum theatre, 910 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($25.00-$133.50) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.

The plot and tone of Mary Poppins underwent some revision in the transition from page to screen, and have undergone even further revision in this iteration, which melds elements of the original 1934 novel with elements of the 1964 Disney film. P.L. Travers, the book’s author, took such exception to the movie that she demanded that no one from Disney or—just to make a point—from the entire United States of America be involved with the creation of the stage adaptation. The production now playing at the Orpheum is the touring version of the Broadway production, which followed the musical’s 2004 debut in London.

Mary Poppins tells the story of the eponymous nanny, a magical creature who arrives for a short stay with the Banks family having a definite purpose in mind. All four family members need to somehow have their eyes opened to the wonders of the world, though the eyes that most need opening belong to Mr. Banks, a banker (natch) who has been bent to a remorselessly Puritan ethic by his own neglectful parents and cruel nanny. Through a series of interventions in the family’s affairs, Mary Poppins…well, I won’t give the ending away.

Appropriately for a musical about an uptight Victorian family, Mary Poppins is the most pristinely polished and overwhelmingly effective musical spectacular that I—or my mom, a fellow Hennepin Theatre vet, who accompanied me—have seen on a Minneapolis stage. I enjoyed Phantom of the Opera, which still holds the prize for the most outright-astonishing sets I’ve seen, but that production was saddled with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s spotty score, while Mary Poppins is anchored by the immortal songs of Richard and Robert Sherman, supplemented by adequate (which in this context is saying a lot) new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. A big-budget Broadway musical carries such heavy weight that songs need to be diamond-polished to really connect, but mass musical entertainment doesn’t come much sharper than Sherman songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” I remember watching the movie as a kid and feeling my heart rise to my throat at the stirring, simple chorus of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” There could hardly have been a pair of composers better suited to composing for Disney than the Sherman brothers, whose best melodies are like Bach’s: they can be repeated ad nauseum, rearranged and repurposed and rebooted, and they never lose their charm.

In an unusual and fortunate situation, the original Broadway leads Ashley Brown (as Mary Poppins) and Gavin Lee (as Bert the chimney sweep) have joined the touring production; Lee, in fact, originated his role in London. Watching Brown and Lee on stage reminded me of an Uncle Tupelo band member’s complimentary remark about the hiring of drummer Ken Coomer to replace an erratic predecessor: “It’s like having a rod inserted into your back.” Brown and Lee—Lee especially—are about as tight as it gets, with nary a gesture misplaced, mistimed, or misjudged. Even more amazingly, they still manage to look like they’re having fun. The rest of the cast keeps up with them, most notably Aida Neitenbach and Christopher Flaim as the Banks children and Valerie Boyle as housekeeper Mrs. Brill.

If the Mary Poppins sets aren’t quite as ambitious as Phantom‘s, they’re just as effective, with tricks that come across as entirely fresh. When Bert pulled a bouquet of flowers out of a painting to give to Mary, a young boy down the row from me gasped. “How’d he do that?” The Banks house is a standalone wonder that moves, rotates, and opens like a pop-up book to reveal interior spaces. Bob Crowley designed the sets with an eye for the charming and eccentric detail that characterizes many children’s storybooks; film director Wes Anderson is similarly enamored with such detail, and in fact I had the impression that the Royal Tenenbaums would feel right at home in the Banks residence.

You will not be bored at Mary Poppins. If anything, you may be a little overwhelmed by the force of the production as it steams expertly through its paces; the Vikings offense wouldn’t stand a chance against that kickline of chimney sweeps. But by the time the production plays its final card for Mary’s smiling sendoff, all but the most cynical viewers will be forced to admit: it’s frickin’ magical.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.


Photo by Ed Krieger, courtesy Guthrie Theater

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