Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theatre Review: Mary Poppins

Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Mary Poppins at the Princess of Wales here in Toronto.

Before I go further, may I just blatantly pronounce that I adore that we are getting Les Miz back in 2012? I have seen it 8 times in Toronto (four of those times WITH Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean), once on Broadway and once in London's West End.   Apparently, this new production has re-imagined staging.  Bring it home to Toronto, people, we LOVE this show.

But, I digress. 

Mary Poppins is produced by Cameron Mackintosh with a new Book by Julian Fellowes. While it maintains many of the standards penned by the Sherman Brothers (composers-in-residence for many of the best-loved Disney films of the 1950s and 1960s ---- they wrote It's a Small World, y'all), there are new numbers added to the show at an unfortunate disconnect. Any musical number not penned by the Brothers Sherman, and added to the re-vamped stage production, though perfunctorily performed by tonight's awe-inspiring cast, seemed jolted and intrusive. 

While this adaptation's story varies from the 1964 Julie Andrews movie and borrows heftily from the P.L. Travers' source material, the jumbling of the musical numbers in different chronology than the film and the insertion of some of the anecdotal instances indigenous to the book make for an odd theatrical experience.  

That being said, this production has some of the greatest moments of staging I have ever seen in my 20+ years as an avid theatre goer.  This production's choreography of "Step in Time" was nothing short of slack-jawed brilliance. At one point, amidst a bevy of chimney sweeps scaling and tapping the staged London rooftops, our Bert escalates aside the stage and upside down: with the careful engineering of the suspensions fans of Wicked are now used to as a mainstay in modern musical theatre.   It was one of many enchanting moments.  The choreography in SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS (sorry, it must be capitalized) was equally remarkable.

The story plays out much as it does in the film: with the motifs of childhood imagination, lessons being learned with a "Spoonful of Sugar" and a hint of charity for man and child and with adults realizing that flying a kite with their family trumps any invasive moments of financial precision at one's obsessive job.   Much like Peter Pan's Mr. Darling, so investor Mr. Banks must slowly learn that his family and his childhood are worth re-possessing and the sense of awe and wonderment found in gingerbread stars is as close a link to his growing son as it is to his own careful upbringing.

As in the film we are so familiar with, the hand-shake of a chimney sweep is good luck, the tattered wares of a woman on the steps of St. Paul's heed all to sacrifice tuppence in motions of charity, and made-up words and colourful antics are the stuff that teach children exactly what they need to move from precocious to darling...

The cast was fabulous having just toured the US from Broadway and I was happy to see some familiar Canadian faces grace the stage.  As one example, Laird Mackintosh played Mr. Banks: anyone who saw The Phantom of the Opera here in T.O. during the 90s as many times as I did ( also with Colm Wilkinson. Torontonians, we are LUCKY that he calls Toronto home!!!!), would recognize him as a popular Raoul.   Rachel Wallace sang with the clear Julie Andrews' crystal soprano befitting the nanny "practically perfect in every way" and it was a delight to see the hints of romantic chemistry flowering between Mary and Nicolas Dromard's adorable Bert. [check out the full touring cast here]. Dromard is from Ottawa!  So glad he's a national treasure!

Bert was a wonderful narrator/jack-of-all-trades much like he is in the film (as we excuse poor Dick Van Dyke's mournful Cockney accent).  This Bert was pitch-perfect and both he and Mary seemed to be having genuine fun with the material they presented in high-pitched, gleeful intensity.  If they needed to kick their knees up to "step in time" with the band of guardian angel chimney sweeps, they did so with jubilant conviction.

Two minor points: the first time I had heard and internalized the meaning of the word "Suffragette" was due to Glynis John's recognizably husky number in the film version.  I wished that Mrs. Banks' character on stage were given the same political convictions to levy her stance as female equal to her workaholic husband. Instead, we are given glimpses into a theatrical history which she trades happily to be full-time nanny to her children when all is happily resolved. Secondly, I thought that the production threw away, as it were, the number Feed the Birds.  Specifically requested at Walt Disney's funeral (being his favourite number) and providing a symbol of charity and good-will, the ethereal chords of this hymn-like number were heard clearly (with strong organ, thank goodness) during its performance; but I wish they had returned to its theme as they did other songs.

[Though Mary Poppins is set in the Edwardian era, I must say that this hardcore Horatio Lyle fan kept thinking of Lyle: partly through Bert's accent, perhaps with the backdrop of St. Paul's.... he is never far from imaginatively away.]

A final moment for the set: like a story book illustration: the set is sketched and blasted with broad strokes of colour and charcoal, not unlike Bert's drawings in the park.  The house on Cherry Tree Lane unfolds quite wonderfully like a doll's house, with Mary Poppins able to snap the gas lamps on and off at her every whim.

There are hints of magic everywhere in this production and the children in the audience, of a generation who probably wouldn't be able to sit through the 1960s movie, were dazzled. As was I.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rachel! Sounds pretty fun. :)