Extravagant Mary Poppins holds court at Blumenthal
Posted on 28 Aug 2010 by Michael J. Solender
Long before ABC’s Supernanny, Jo Frost, was sending pint-sized terrors to the naughty spot, Helen Lyndon Goff aka P.L. Travers of Queensland, Australia had other ideas of how troublesome tots and their equally wayward parents could be whipped into shape. Travers answer to the proper British turn-of-the-century house in disarray was the bustle bobbing, umbrella toting, omniscience of London’s own uber-nanny, Mary Poppins.
When Travers introduced the world to Poppins through a series of children’s novels published beginning in 1934, she could hardly imagine her acerbic and slightly mystical protagonist would capture the hearts of millions of children across the pond. I, along with scores of baby-boomers, came to know Poppins through her iconic portrayal by Julie Andrews in the 1964 Disney film classic, Mary Poppins.
Some forty years later, with the full force of Leviathan merchandising and corporate bankrolling behind the brand, Disney struck again bringing Poppins alive onstage on Broadway where she has enjoyed both box office and critical success ever since. Queen City residents can thank Cameron Mackintosh, the venerable Broadway producer, for the current over-the top performance by the touring company at the Blumenthal. This show brings many of the West-End ensemble to the stage for an evening of Cockney accents, elaborate staging, and resplendent costumes all surrounding a tepid plot-line that serves as a mere backdrop for whimsical and ever familiar show tunes.
The Blumenthal was overflowing with families Friday evening. Suburban grade-schoolers were in their finest evening wear. Little girls sported taffy colored dresses, hair bows the circumference of their owner’s heads and heels that were the cause of more than one tumble in the lobby. No matter, they were there to witness their first Broadway show, and what a show it was.
From the opening Chim Chim Cher-ee to the closing Supercalifragilisticexpiaidocious encore medley, the brilliantly constructed ensemble cast maintained an energy level that was just slightly below uncontrollable frenzy. The plot is as indicated, thin; Poppins (Caroline Sheen — as self billed, is practically perfect in every way) appears on the scene of the not-so-tightly controlled household of George (Laird Mackintosh) and Winifred (Blythe Wilson) Banks in a last ditch attempt to restore order and joy into the chaotic and too tightly wound family.
The near three hour performance suffers slightly from peaking too early as the true show stopper comes early in act one with Jolly Holiday. Bert, in a polished and never restrained performance by Dominic Roberts, leads the cast of statuary and park patrons in explaining through song and dance the powers of MP to the Banks children, deftly played by Camille Mancuso and Talon Ackerman. The shift from a flatly lit almost black and white stage to one in brilliant color, screaming with bold primary hues through the course of this number was mesmerizing.
The shifting, rolling and collapsible sets transformed the proscenium stage to 17 Cherry Tree Lane with remarkable ease and detail. The kitchen scene where Sheen truly shines in administering A Spoonful of Sugar to the children after a calamitous episode is another act one highlight. The Bank’s household help, Mrs. Brill (Rachel Izen) and Robertson Ay (Dennis Moench) are a perfectly paired comic team that offer set ups to Sheen’s straight laced punch line deliveries.
Act two tries mightily to recapture the energy of the show’s first half and with the sublimely wicked and high octane Brimstone and Treacle performance of Ellen Harvey’s Miss Andrew, they nearly pull it off. Alas the show’s final hour runs low on batteries and relies more on the wizardry of Sheen who floats in and out of scenes with her magical umbrella. Credit to Roberts who leads the Step and Time dance number close to the enthusiasm seen in act one including a tribute to Fred Astaire where he dances literally while climbing all around the stage, including tap dancing while suspended upside down some thirty feet in the air.
A fine ensemble cast, strong voices all, round out a very entertaining evening that is just short of magical in its waning conclusion.
The set design, lighting and special effects take this production to the edge, leaving the children wide eyed and their parents content that their splurge on show tickets was worth the expenditure. This Mary Poppins proves that anything can happen and it usually does.
The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center Hosts Mary Poppins at the Belk Theater as part of their Broadway Lights Series through September 19. Info at: http://www.blumenthalcenter.org/