Mary Poppins

November 15, 2005

I saw this show about a month before I actually moved here.  Being an unapologetic Disney-phile, it was at the top of my list, especially considering London was the only place to see it at the time.

Of course, Mary Poppins is the theatrical version of the classic film of the same name.  And, in this regard it’s joining a disturbingly fast-growing family of films-turned-shows like Singin’ In the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, Footloose, Carrie, Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Producers.  Not that all these shows are bad.  It’s just… well, where have all the ideas gone?  Is it only a matter of time before we get musicals based on, say, Armageddon or Big Momma’s House?

At least the film Mary Poppins was a musical to start with.  However, I think the producers realized that it was sofamiliar in it’s film form that changes would have to be made to make the live version something to see.  After all, why pay £90 per ticket to watch something you’ve watched a hundred times at home on video?

In addition, there’s the legacy of Julie Andrews to overcome.  The actress (who won an Academy Award for her performance) put such a distinctive stamp on the role that seeing anyone else play it would just seem odd.  To overcome the feeling that every performance features the understudy in the lead, so to speak, they’ve changed the character of Mary from a purely whimsical person to more of a taskmistress.

In the stage version, Mary is quite a bit less likeable than Mary in the film.  If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, she doesn’t seem to be taking her own advice.  Most of the “joy” of the story is then left to Bert.  Played brilliantly by Dick Van Dyke in the film, Bert in the show is played equally brilliantly by Gavin Lee.  Lee, more than anyone in the production, really makes the story come alive and seems to be the only one in the cast truly having fun in their role.

Since Mary is now a bit of a spoilsport, the writers have invented a new character, an evil old crone of a nanny named (amusingly) Miss Andrews, seemingly for the sole purpose of making Mary look better by comparison.  Oddly, the “evil” nanny has the show’s best new song, “Brimstone and Treacle”, a deliciously dark waltz that reminded me a bit of “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast.

Finally, there is the set.  It’s quite an amazing set, and the production uses it to its full extent (perhaps “overuses” would be more accurate).  Picture #7 Cherry Tree Lane as a giant, life-size doll’s house — a real three-storey house, cut in half with stairs leading from one floor to the next, and a rooftop than can be lowered all the way down to stage level and then removed to reveal an attic underneath.  It’s jaw-dropping stuff.  And like any toy that’s this cool, you run the risk of overusing it by having the characters go up and down stairs for no good reason other than show off the set.  By the forth or fifth time the attic level was whisked down to the stage floor, the novelty had worn thin.  It was still cool, just not as much as it should’ve been.

Overall, it was a first-class production of a wonderful show.  Of all the recent film-to-stage adaptations, this one was worth it.