REVIEW BY DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For 21st-Century Media
Mary Poppins, a magical English nanny, is remarkably chock full of history. First, she is the lead character in no less than eight books, written by an Australian: P. L. Travers, in the 1930s. Second, she is perhaps best known for the 1964 Walt Disney movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
Starting with a dollhouse on stage and outlines of chimneys, the Walnut Street Theater’s Mary Poppins is a toy chest of fun as she flies through the air with her signature umbrella. With a magical suitcase filled with a hat stand, tall plant and a floor-standing lamp, she is every child’s dream of an engaging companion.
The stage musical is not a direct adaptation of the Disney film, but features elements of the film and the original books, plus original updated elements.
Costume designer George Mitchell makes delicious choices for the visually extravagant “Supercalifragilistic” number in addition to the fetching Victorian attire. J Branson’s sets and Paul Black’s lighting schemes provide a broad canvas of texture and color.
The orchestration adds ethereal sound motives, and musical director Douglas Lutz maintains a comfortable volume level for the performers.
Wayne Bryan directs a sensitive and uplifting production that faces and conquers technical challenges and still preserves the story’s emotionally tender elements.
In the musical, Mary Poppins, the magical nanny suddenly appears to take charge of the (not very) naughty Banks children and heal their broken family. This WST nanny is a far more enigmatic figure than we’re used to thinking. Not merely prim but downright egotistical, she briskly instructs the children on proper upper-class comportment, then leads them on a series of supernatural adventures that subvert the suffocating order of Edwardian English society.
Doubly Disneyfied, the stage musical becomes a feel-good romp that extols the power of childlike imagination and positively oozes with nostalgia for the beloved film version.
The best aspect of this production is how seamlessly the entire production staff worked together to deliver stunning moments. Two examples are during “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilistic” when Bryan’s vision, Mitchell’s costumes, Linda Goodrich’s choreography, Branson’s scenic design and Lutz’s musical direction all came together in unbelievable and exciting production numbers.
There is nothing routine about Goodrich’s choreography that is a knockout throughout, every bit as impressive as the singing, and both are gorgeously augmented by Mr. Lutz, who conducts an orchestra just as talented as the on-stage performers.
The long first act contains a slow character exposition and songs for every emotion that are simply too long (i.e. “Being Mrs. Banks” and “practically perfect”) Not to worry, the explosive second act more than makes up the difference.
While this WST professional production lacks some of the technical effects found in the original and touring shows, (such as: the runaway carousel horses, the penguin luncheon and nursery toys magically cleaning themselves back into their cubbies) this is a more intimate production that’s less about special effects, but is still has some interesting magic. The show however, rides along nicely on its splendid score.
The most original performance is that of David Elder as Bert, the Cockney jack-of-all-trades. A limber fellow with a kid-friendly countenance, Elder brings a heartwarming gentleness to the role made famous by Dick Van Dyke, and even a touch of pathos as he seems to pine for Mary.
Lindsey Bliven who has played the Poppins role elsewhere, maintains a “stick-like” posturing throughout but manages to get the job done. She has crisp, confident movements but her vocals are sung in a high-pitch, colorless octave.
Grace Matwijec and Nicky Torchia as the Banks children operate at a superior level but if you have difficulty understanding their every word, you might consider their accent as the source of the problem.
Deborah Templin is outstanding as Miss Andrews. Her character is chilling and her voice range; astonishing. Among the excellent work done by this large supporting cast is Bill Van Horn as the Bank Chairman, Jeffrey Coon as George Banks and the every reliable Mary Martello as Miss Brill.
IF YOU GO
What: “Mary Poppins”
When: The show runs through Sunday, Jan. 4.
Where: The Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut streets, in Philadelphia.
Tickets: $20 – $95
Info.: Call (215) 574-3550 or (800) 982-2787 or check www.walnutstreettheatre.org.