When Mary Poppins magically descends from the skies into the lives of the Banks family, nothing is ever the same—and that is the best thing about Theatre Under the Stars’ latest production of Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical, playing through next Sunday, March 20.
Mary Poppins is about a family on the verge of falling apart for a variety of reasons, and my creaky memories of Dick Van Dyke camping it up and Julie Andrews saving the day had made me forget that although the setting is vaguely late-Victorian, and the messages, as is true for most musicals, are pretty obvious, they are still uncannily contemporary: childcare issues, parental neglect, facing unemployment, work ethics, how to hire staff, feminism, issues of class (“underneath…your blood is blue,” Mary sings to Bert), and social climbing. Just because someone belts out into song doesn’t mean these conflicted territories aren’t addressed in interesting ways.
From the Victorian sets that employ clever lighting tactics, a gossamer screen and furniture arrangement that is a model of efficiency as things move from scene to scene, the show is a visual stunner. The era and ambiance is dead-on, whether it be the staid office of Mr. Banks or the adorable bedrooms of Jane and Michael, the bratty children who have gone through countless nannies, their defiance comically out of control. The imposing bank where Mr. Banks works is an amazing feat of trompe d’oeil, and even the scenes in the park are noteworthy with a statue surprisingly coming to life to usher in a musical number.
The costumes, whether they be those of Mary Poppins herself, with her signature umbrella and coats, or of dancing toys and statues or chimney sweeps, are perfectly synchronized with the sets themselves. How can one forget the disarray of a kitchen fiasco when the shelves themselves magically drop, only to be corrected by Mary Poppins and her particular strain of pixie dust? Lots of technical expertise was put into this production and it pays off in a big way, making a long show seem fast paced and upbeat and engaging the entire time.
Christina DeCicco, who floats in from the netherworld as the practically perfect and slightly snippy Mary Poppins, has a voice worthy of envy. But her cast mates don’t let her down, with Danny Gardner’s version of Bert offering a dose of jovial goofiness to accompany her lead. Equally excellent are the vocals of Courtney Markowitz, who brings so much to the character of Mrs. Banks, who one could easily see being a role that could recede behind the front and center function of Mary Poppins, but she does not. The director, Linda Goodrich, not only succeed in making this (and rightly so), a full-front ensemble production, but her choreography is both clever and surprising, and the deftness of the dancers (especially Danny Gardner and Ensemble) thrills.
Audiences will enjoy the familiarity of “Practically Perfect,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and “Anything Can Happen,” but the high energy of the performers prevents these songs from seeming cloying or cliché. Maybe we know Mary Poppins makes her own rules and “never explains anything,” but we want to watch her affect the Banks family anyway with her own magically delicious superpowers. Her bag of tricks produces hat stands, plants, toys… And we just want more. When DeCicco sings “I’m Practically Perfect,” well, she is just that.
I was surprised that this production was not only based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the beloved Walt Disney film, but also on the book by the ubiquitous Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. And the lines were wittier than I anticipated, with many moments of humor punctuating the dialogue as well as the music, as when Mary Poppins asks the police officer if he has “lost his marbles” when he claims a statue is missing from the park. Her delivery prevents such moments from being groan-worthy and makes us laugh.
Addressing the ups and downs and seeming bi-polarity of life, Mary Poppins reminds audiences that “Anything can happen if you let it”—and it is nice to think so. Highlights of the show include imaginative physical comedy, a spectacular nanny sing-off between Mary and the mean nanny, Miss Andrew, a slow-motion dance scene of chimney sweeps, and voices that soar. While some of the lines turn toward the preachy (“No man should be too busy for his own children!”), there are moments that have more subtlety, yet are just as clear, as when Mary tells the children, “When will you learn to look past what you can see?” Indeed.
Mary Poppins surprises and delights, and does so for all ages. It is hard to find a show that can be enjoyed whether you are 8 or 88, but this one fits the bill. Paul Rubin’s flying sequences, choreography that ranges from vaudevillian to balletic, and sets, costumes, and cast performances that work with each other rather than against create a well-oiled machine of a production that is a model of efficiency and engagement. What can I say? It was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
Thru March 20. $37.75–124.50. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2400. tuts.com