A dreary Monday didn't hold back throngs of people, whose bobbing umbrellas heralded the iconic bumbershoot-wielding heroine herself: Mary Poppins.
A Hollywood spectacle and universally adored musical film for generations, "Mary Poppins" seemed an obvious successor in the wealth of screen-to-stage adaptations that have filled big Broadway houses over the past decade. And as the evening commenced, it seemed to harken straight to the 1964 Walt Disney classic: within a matter of seconds we are on Cherry Street Lane in a whirlwind welcome by the lovable Bert, the neighborhood Constable, Admiral Boom, and of course, the Banks family. But the story quickly strays from the cinematic standard, and not necessarily to its advantage.
The program notes state that the musical is based on the stories of author P.L. Travers as well as the Disney film. New songs by George Stiles and Anthoney Drewe accompany memorable originals by the Sherman brothers. The story is credited for its stage adaptation to Julian Fellowes, the respected writer behind "Gosford Park" and "Downton Abbey".
It's too bad Fellowes didn't create "Downton Abbey" earlier, or "Mary Poppins" later. Unfortunately, some of Fellowe's Abbey-esque melodrama seems to have snuck into the Poppins world; Mary is colder, the children are brattier, Mr. Banks is meaner and Mrs Banks has been completely stripped of her Suffragette passion and is instead a lost, nihilistic and purposeless ex-actress whose greatest agony is that she can't be of more fulfillment to her husband. Thankfully, Bert remains the resourceful optimist, and some new characters pulled from the books liven up the stage. However, some of the film favorites have been underplayed or disappeared entirely – surprising choices, considering the great theatrical potential these eccentric characters might offer in a stage version, which seems to have been sacrificed for angsty ballads and vicious characters. Apparently, Fellowes was more interested in over-the-top characterisations of emotionally abusive families than celebrating the beloved avuncular giggle-fests.
The problems of the script are not much helped by Gary Griffin's direction. Many of the characters are underplayed, leaving dry characters virtually skeletal in the caverns of the Muny. Choreography by Alex Sanchez is also surprisingly restrained; the few times it seemed the talented cast was really ready to unleash in an all out dancey-ali-docious, the ensemble instead is confined to repetition, walzes, and some high kicks under a few featured flying performers. The big “S”-word showstopper is satisfying, and may have dominated the show's rehearsal time. Even so, the dance prowess of Rob McClure as Bert shines through – even in large ensemble and otherwise standard routines, McClure bounces, springs, and charms through the drudge with true mastery.
The pictorial set by Michael Schweikardt, lighting by Rob Denton, and sound by Jason Krueger are polished but not remarkable. Thankfully, colorful twirling Edwardian costumes by Nancy Missimi help energize the stage, as do the stellar vocal chords of the cast. Jenny Powers' flawless soprano in the titular role is worth praise. Mrs. Banks' attempted character development may be strained, but Erin Dilly gives the character every effort and her ballads, while stilling the plot, are moving in her crystal-clear songbird voice. As Jane and Michael, youngsters Elizabeth Teeter and Aidan Gemme are spot-on vocally and are very entertaining actor-dancers.
Overall, "Mary Poppins: The Musical" teeters between an attempt to rely on its preceding Hollywood fame, versus striving to thrive as a new Musical theatre standard in celebration of the stories of P.L. Travers, verses a strange dramatic commentary on the dysfunctional Edwardian bourgois family. Unfortunately, by not fully committing to any of these roles, it fails in all of them. Overall, the show is long, slow-moving, and the familiar favorite tunes are outweighed by less interesting medleys and moments. It's too bad we didn't get the jolly holiday with Mary that we hoped for.