Story: George and Winifred Banks have just seen their latest nanny depart in a huff from their London household, thanks to the incorrigible behavior of their children Jane and Michael. When George writes a job description for still another domestic, mysteriously arrives one Mary Poppins, an extremely self-confident nanny who promptly takes over the child-rearing chores before George even mails his note.
George, a pent-up man who is emotionally distant from his family, encounters problems in his position as a bank officer by his refusal to loan money to a greedy businessman, instead lending funds to an idealistic entrepreneur who hopes to open a factory and provide gainful employment for many. Winifred, a former actress, searches for happiness in her cloistered existence as a wife and mother in the rigid, Edwardian era near the start of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, Mary introduces the children to colorful friends who expand the tykes’ understanding of human nature, such as the affable jack-of-all-trades Bert, the “Bird Lady” and Mrs. Corry, proprietor of a “conversation shop.” When George is suspended by the bank for his debatable decisions, and the children rebel against Mary’s advice, the family’s mettle is tested on how it copes with her sudden departure.
Highlights: The musical version of Mary Poppins is a hybrid of the classic children’s books by P.L. Travers and the 1964 movie by Walt Disney that garnered a whopping 13 Oscar nominations and five awards. The musical opened in London in late 2004 and on Broadway in 2006, where it is still being performed. The touring production, which was launched in March 2009, is a collaboration of producers Cameron Mackintosh and Thomas Schumacher of Disney Productions.
The show blends the Academy Award-winning music and lyrics by Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman with several new tunes by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and a book by Julian Fellowes. It also features a stellar performance by Rachel Wallace in the title role that gives this touring show its primary luster.
Other Info: For whatever reason, the presentation currently being staged at the Peabody Opera House falls significantly short of the version that played The Fox in 2009. Much of the time it lacks the energy and exuberance that marked that earlier rendition, such as in the second-act piece, Step in Time. At The Fox it was exhilarating to watch Bert walk up one wall, across the ceiling and down another wall. Here, it seems more perfunctory.
The sets as well are rather tame for the most part compared with the earlier version, although there are some highlights. The Jolly Holiday number in Act One, e.g., is resplendent in a brilliant rainbow of hues that color flowers and visitors to the park where Mary takes the children, courtesy of lighting designer Natasha Katz. Additionally, Bernie Ardia’s hair and makeup design helps bring the park’s statues to life in spirited fashion.
Wallace is wonderful in the title role, both in her imperious approach to questions (“I never explain myself,” or “I never provide references”) and in her magnificent voice, which soars on a bevy of numbers including A Spoonful of Sugar and Practically Perfect. She also leads, with Tonya Thompson as Mrs. Corry, the bright, splashy and infectious Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which benefits as well from the clever choreography of co-director Matthew Bourne and co-choreographer Stephen Mear as characters both sing and shape the letters.
Case Dillard is a disappointment as Bert. His voice simply isn’t particularly good, which brings down such classic tunes as Chim Chim Cheree, and certainly dampens Step in Time, which also suffers from rather flat pacing by director Richard Eyre in contrast to his earlier effort that played The Fox.
Several of the numbers, in fact, seem to be in slow motion much of the time, which hurts the tempo of the show. There is good work, though, by Elizabeth Broadhurst as Mrs. Banks and Q. Smith as the Bird Woman who beautifully sings the affecting number, Feed the Birds.
Michael Dean Morgan is fine as the stuffy Mr. Banks, Q. Smith doubles as Mr. Banks’ own no-nonsense nanny, Miss Andrew, and Marissa Ackerman and Zachary Mackiewicz sparkled in the opening night production as Jane and Michael. Tregoney Shepherd and Blake Segal provide fine comic relief as servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay.
Bob Crowley’s scenic and costume designs are well-suited for the Edwardian era, especially a visually stunning depiction of the bank where Mr. Banks is employed. Music supervisor of the small orchestra is David Caddick, Daniel Bowling serves as music director and William David Brohn provides the orchestrations.
Eyre’s direction indicates that Mary Poppins may simply be too big a show for a venue such as the Peabody, with a slower pace needed to ensure a smooth flow to proceedings (an unexpected interruption in the first act on opening night didn’t help). For those meeting this singular nanny for the first time, though, Mary Poppins is likely to be a treat.
Musical: Mary Poppins
Group: Touring Company
Venue: Peabody Opera House, 14th at Market
Dates: May 10, 11, 12, 13
Tickets: From $22; contact 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Deen van Meer