Story: Based on a series of children’s books by P.L. Travers and the 1964 Walt Disney film of the same name, Mary Poppins is the story of a mysterious nanny who magically appears at the Banks household in Edwardian London to care for Jane and Michael Banks, the children of stuffy banker George Banks and his long-suffering wife Winifred, a former actress.
The whimsical Mary, an imperious and proper but high-spirited woman, teaches ignored and impudent Jane and her younger brother about manners and protocol, but also about the fun in life. She’s aided in the latter endeavor by her good friend Bert, an amiable chimney sweep, as well as talking statues, a woman who feeds birds, another woman who runs a ‘word shop,’ and others, all of whom agree that it’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary.
Highlights: Opened in London’s West End by Cameron Mackintosh in 2004, the U.S. production began on Broadway in 2006 and closed just a few months ago after more than 2,600 performances. This marks The Muny’s debut performance, following touring shows that have played The Fox and Peabody Opera House.
Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, based his book for the musical on both the film and the original stories by P.L. Travers. A few original tunes written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman are deleted from the musical version, which adds selected new numbers by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Considering the difficult special effects involved in staging Mary Poppins, The Muny’s version is delightful in many respects, while falling short by comparison in other areas.
Other Info: One of the highlights of The Muny’s rendition is a thunderous, pulsating take on the high-stepping tap number Step in Time in Act II. The expansive Muny stage offers a fitting canvas for Bert and a cavalcade of fellow chimney sweeps as they twirl brooms while they cavort in unison on the rooftops of London. Bert’s swing across the stage, though, on a wire above the players, pales in comparison to his spectacular walk up one wall, across the ceiling and down another wall as performed in the touring show at The Fox.
The giddily effervescent Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious proves to be the true show-stopper at The Muny. With a coterie of Muny youth ensemble players in tow, the piece begins in Mrs. Corry’s magic ‘word shop’ and culminates in a parade through the aisles of sundry players who each carry a letter and then spell out the singular word correctly when they return to the stage. It’s an impressive feat that paid delightful dividends after doubtless rigorous rehearsal.
Alex Sanchez’s choreography is strong throughout the engaging production, as the players are put through lively paces that accompany the rich and toe-tapping score played precisely by musical director Michael Horsley and his orchestra.
For a truly successful Poppins production, it’s imperative to have an impeccable performer in the title role. Jenny Powers admirably fills the bill in that regard. Her Mary is the epitome of proper British expression, and her lush singing delivers several memorable tunes, including A Spoonful of Sugar, Practically Perfect and the winsome ballad, Anything Can Happen, as well as that Super number.
Rob McClure, who amused Muny audiences on his knees earlier this summer as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, is a genial and limber Bert, as evidenced in the delightful Jolly Holiday tune in the park and the Oscar-winning ballad, Chim Chim Cheree.
Stephen Buntrock and Erin Dilly make a fine pair as the repressed George Banks and his frustrated wife, Winifred. There also is a pair of totally delightful performances by local performer Elizabeth Teeter as the stifled Jane and Aidan Gemme as her wide-eyed brother Michael. Both talented youngsters played those roles on Broadway, which is evident in their capable and polished portrayals.
Fine supporting work is contributed by St. Louisans Zoe Vonder Haar as the Banks’ no-nonsense domestic, Mrs. Brill; James Anthony as George’s addled boss and also the upper-crust Admiral Boom; and Laura Ackermann as the Bird Woman, who sings the melancholy Feed the Birds tune in the park.
Rebecca Finnegan has fun as the intimidating Miss Andrew, George’s own childhood nanny, as well as the charming Mrs. Corry, and Anthony Christian Daniel is amusing as accident-prone domestic Robertson Ay.
Director Gary Griffin does a marvelous job making everything jell on stage and off, including Mary’s signature flight into the heavens across The Muny audience that is impressive to behold. Nathan Scheuer’s projections shrewdly complement Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design, which is highlighted by that enchanting shop run by Mrs. Corry. Nancy Missimi’s costumes are appealing, lighting by Rob Denton is especially noteworthy on the Step in Time number and Jason Krueger adds the sound design.
While the special effects can’t match the wondrous achievements in the original touring production, The Muny’s Mary Poppins thrives on the strength of the spirited performances of its cast.
Musical: Mary Poppins
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 2
Tickets: Free to $80; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry