Mary Poppins is one of Disney’s most successful and iconic movie musicals, featuring a number of unforgettable songs and a story that has easily withstood the test of time. It’s slightly head-scratching given this that Cameron Macintosh, famed producer of mega hits like Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom of The Opera, would want to mess with something that already works so well.
The stage adaptation of Mary Poppins is one part re-imaging and one part preserving the classic film. It’s a mix of the elements from the film we know and love, and new songs and material that has been added in to expand the film into a Broadway musical. The problem, though, is that the film didn’t really need much expanding; running close to two and a half hours, if the movie version of Mary Poppins ever had any real issue, it was that it’s a little long for younger kids.
The Broadway musical rendition of Mary Poppins expands to nearly three hours (with an intermission), with songs and scenes that just aren’t necessary. I’m not a ‘Mary Poppins purist’, and recognize that some elements simply have to change in the adaptation. Perhaps the subplot of Winifred Banks and her push for the woman’s suffrage movement might be more lost on modern audiences than when the movie first premiered. Yet some of the things which are added to the mix do very little to improve the Mary Poppins experience, and two songs in particular, “Playing The Game” and “Brimstone and Treacle,” actually do a slight disservice to the show.
Only one of the new songs, “Practically Perfect”, an expansion of the famous way in which Mary Poppins refers to herself, really seems to feel like it could have come from the same source as the original movie. In addition to the new songs, a few significant changes have been made that just don’t work. One of the most famous songs from Mary Poppins, “A Spoon Full of Sugar,” gets pulled completely out of the context of the story and placed into a scene that is extraordinarily cartoony. While the scene itself was fun, the whole context for the song is lost and it’s meaning gets extremely diluted.
Aside from “A Spoon Full of Sugar”, most of the classic Mary Poppins songs do find new life and energy on stage. The segment for “Jolly Holiday” (where statues stand in for the film’s animated penguins), is an absolute spectacle. The crescendo of the number is exceptional and shows the real possibility for adapting this beloved movie musical to the stage. The same rings true for “Supercalifragisticexpialidocious” which gets the most benefit from the re-imaging than any other number in the show. It’s transformed into an absolute show stopper and highlight of the production.
I also really enjoyed how Bert’s role was expanded and recast as a narrator. He is the real glue that holds everything together, even when the show gets off course. The show really seems to get off course at the end of the first act with the number “The Game”, a clunky and slightly mean segment where Jane and Michael’s toys come to life and complain about being mistreated. It’s a fairly dark number and the tone just doesn’t match the core of Mary Poppins. It’s also one of the few things in the show that younger kids might find fairly disturbing – something that simply wasn’t a part of the movie.
The start of the second act also has some serious issues with the addition of an ‘evil’ nanny called Miss Andrews. Aside from the fact that using the name “Miss Andrews” associated with Mary Poppins is extremely loaded, the character of Miss Andrews is simply awful and the number that finds her trying to force feed the kids some nasty medicine while singing “Brimstone and Treacle” just plain sucks. The end of the scene also finds Mary Poppins acting in a very un-Mary Poppins way. The entire sub-plot could have been easily dropped and the show would have only benefitted from its absence.
By the time we reach “Step in Time”, all the shows faults and mis-steps are forgotten and forgiven. The number is a grand spectacle in the film, and it’s energy and excitement are captured and enhanced on stage. If you’ve ever wondered why people love Mary Poppins, a few minutes of “Step in Time” will quickly show you why. It’s everything a great musical number should be, and with a few nice surprises it feels as fresh and new as when the movie first premiered.
The staging for Mary Poppins is pretty spectacular. The sets and transition between scenes are so well crafted and executed that it raises the bar for what’s possible on stage with a touring company. The production as a whole felt more like an actual Broadway show rather than a lesser touring version. While some performers play multiple rolls, there never felt like a shortage of people on stage and the ensemble numbers filled the stage from end to end. I don’t know how they did it, but the production also managed to overcome the long standing acoustical issues of the Keller. Every note was perfectly clear, and it rates by far the best sounding thing I’ve seen in the venue.
The performances in Mary Poppins The Broadway Musical were also top notch. Dick Van Dyke’s shoes are impossible to fill as Bert and I appreciate that Nicholas Dromard doesn’t try. Instead he manages to make the role his own and gives a very strong performance rather than a strong imitation. On the evening I saw the performance, Michael Dean Morgan played the role of George Banks. Morgan is the understudy for the role, but he gives one of the strongest performances of the night. Morgan captures the essence of George Banks both in words and in song, and it doesn’t hurt that he looks and sounds a lot like David Tomlinson.
While I thought Blythe Wilson did a solid job in her performance, I didn’t like the tone she brought to the role of Winifred Banks. In the film, Winifred is slightly loopy and even a little ditzy. This helps lighten some of the more tense scenes between George and the children. Blythe Wilson plays the role dead seriously and this brings a weight and almost morose seriousness to some of the more dramatic scenes, a note that just doesn’t fit well with the production. Of the children, Tyler Merna as Michael is the much stronger performer of the two and does an excellent job with the role.
When it comes to Mary Poppins The Broadway Musical, it’s lead actress Steffanie Leigh who is practically perfect in every way. Her performance of Mary Poppins is one of the strongest of any Broadway touring company and perhaps any performer I’ve seen on stage in Portland. Leigh is simply captivating. Of all the original movie performers, it would be Julie Andrews, who is so closely associated with the role of Mary Poppins, whose shoes would be the most difficult to fill. Steffanie Leigh tackles this challenge with ease, and instead of trying to live in Julie Andrews’ shadow, she captures the absolute essence of Mary Poppins and performs it….perfectly. Mary Poppins The Broadway Musical is worth seeing if for no other reason than to see Steffanie Leigh perform.
The musical adaptation of Mary Poppins isn’t perfect – many of the new songs and numbers don’t work, and it feels a little long especially for the youngest fans. But what does work, works extremely well. In an era where so many existing movies are getting adapted into Broadway musicals, the adaptation of Mary Poppins actually makes sense. Numbers like “Supercalifragisticexpialidocious” and “Step in Time” are strong arguments for bringing the magic off the screen and onto the stage. Had Cameron Macintosh and company stuck with the original material and this staging, they could have had one of the best productions to hit Broadway in years. As it stands, warts and all, it’s still an extraordinarily enjoyable and entertaining show that will undoubtedly make a star out of Steffanie Leigh.