Review: “Mary Poppins” at the Academy of Music

Kids and their parents will be grinning from ear to ear

In the Broadway musical [Title of Show], there’s a great bit of dialogue between two characters discussing new musicals: “So movies make good musicals?” “Well, they make musicals.” In recent years the go-to source material for Broadway musicals has been movies. The Producers. Hairspray. The Little Mermaid. Billy Elliot. Dirty Dancing. Nearly every Broadway season for the past 10 years has had at least one new musicalized movie. This makes sense. Many have built-in name recognition (Shrek); others were already musicals (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), while others were already filled with iconic music (Footloose). While some … okay, most are unsuccessful (the majority feel generically jukebox-y), there are a few that stand above the cavalcade—capturing the heart of the original movie. Fortunately—and thankfully—Mary Poppins, now at the Academy of Music, is in this category.

[SIGNUP]There is much to admire about the stage production. First the creative team is top-notch: book by Julian Fellowes (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park), directed by Richard Eyre (2006’s Notes on a Scandal), and co-directed/choreographed by Matthew Bourne. While the creators could have simply plopped the entire movie on the stage, they decided to go another route. The familiar now appears alongside the unfamiliar, taken from P.L. Travers’s original Mary Poppins stories. Yes we have Bert singing “Jolly Holiday” in a colorful park; but instead of penguins, the cast dances with (admittedly kinda creepy) statues that have come to life. “Supercali…” now takes place in the magical shop of Mrs. Corry, rather than at the racetrack. Just keep an eye out for the sinister new song “Playing the Game.” The scene is like the cast of Toy Story has come to life to perform The Crucible. It’s pretty disturbing.

And yet with all of the differences, much is as it should be. Mary Poppins (played by Steffanie Leigh) wears the signature coat and carries the magical carpetbag and parrot umbrella. She carries herself and sings like Julie Andrews, but Leigh adds an unexpected and delightful bubbly disposition. Additionally, a true highlight of the show is the hauntingly beautiful “Feed the Birds.” It’s given greater depth by now being a duet between Leigh and the Bird Woman, Janet MacEwan. Their voices are strong but agile within the delicate melody.

Yet for all of the effort made to ensure Mary looks/acts like Julie Andrews’s Mary, more care should have been taken with casting Bert. Inevitably, you can’t imagine anyone other than Dick Van Dyke playing Bert—horrible accent, and all. So Nicolas Dromard is already at a disadvantage. No matter how much he is able to bring to the role (which is actually quite a lot), I couldn’t help but want someone lankier, someone more … well, Van Dyke-ian.

The production sometimes relies too much on the dazzle. Like many other recent mega-musicals, a lot of money has gone into the set and special effects. (How much did that giant spinning umbrella cost to build and operate?) Unfortunately, this leads to the cast becoming secondary to these effects. Relying on these, rather than the energy and interactions of the actors, the show often lacks magic. And yet the effects are often hard to resist. (Especially at the end, where I found myself grinning from ear to ear and at the edge of my seat.) This is a rarity in modern theater: to look around you and see that the adults are just as excited as their children. Where, for a few seconds, you believe Mary Poppins may actually be real. On stage through April 17th.