Friendly winds direct Mary Poppins, the beloved, magical nanny, to the troubled Banks household on Cherry Tree Lane. Chimney sweeps dance, artwork comes alive and, ultimately, Mary Poppins' influence restores the fraying family ties between George and Winifred Banks and their two children, Jane and Michael. Yet theatergoers expecting a close interpretation of Disney's classic 1964 film (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) will find little familiar territory in the onstage production of Mary Poppins.
The show's creators certainly reference the movie on stage in the costumes and sets and, more notably, by incorporating many of the film's most popular songs, such as "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Jolly Holiday" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (though the familiar songs have heavily adapted lyrics). However, the children's interactions and adventures with their "practically perfect" nanny primarily reflect stories included in the original Mary Poppins book series by P.L. Travers.
This production does not depict the more iconic scenes from the film, like the carousel horse race in the park and the giddy tea party on the ceiling, but instead features talking and dancing statues, a lighter-than-air walk through the stars and an encounter with the ancient and mysterious wordsmith, Mrs. Corry. The Banks home is also imaginatively rendered on stage as a dollhouse, folding and unfolding around itself to change scenes and settings.
The touring company boasts a wealth of talent. Rachel Wallace stars as Mary Poppins; she possesses a lovely singing voice and deftly handles any number of trick props, quick changes and high-flying situations. Case Dillard plays Bert, the charming, gracious and good-humored jack-of-all-trades. Dillard captures the most endearing qualities of his character and also demonstrates great skill as a dancer.
Q. Smith is double cast as the Bird Woman and Miss Andrew, the childhood nanny – and terror – of Mr. Banks himself. Smith shines during "Feed the Birds," a song that showcases her beautiful voice, but she brings the house down during the second act as the humorously formidable Miss Andrew. Blake Segal stands out as the Banks family butler Robertson Ay. Segal maintains brilliant comic timing and has a prime opportunity to reveal his commendable singing voice as well.
"Step in Time" – the chimney sweeps' all-singing, all-dancing number from the Mary Poppins film – is the production's big show-stopper. This impressive tap sequence is brimming with non-stop energy, complex choreography and brilliant visuals.
That vitality wanes, however, through other parts of the production. Jane and Michael's story seems sidelined by the emphasis placed on Mr. and Mrs. Banks. Themes of class and status, woman's "proper" place in Edwardian society and the long-lasting effects of repressive childrearing repeatedly recur, and with a specific focus on their impact on the adult members of the Banks household.
In addition, the show's new songs bear the weight of exposition, especially in the first act. Had the information in these songs been offered as spoken dialogue instead, Mary Poppins would have a more streamlined presentation and the production could feasibly be trimmed to a more manageable length. With a running time of nearly two and a half hours (plus intermission), the show poses an endurance challenge for smaller children (and for some older audience members, as well).
Mary Poppins plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, February 19, 2012. Tickets are available online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $38-$75; contact the box office for details on Kids' Night on Broadway, Amica's Family Night at Mary Poppins or for information on discounted rates for groups of 20 or more.