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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
MARY POPPINS
at New Amsterdam Theatre

GREAT EXPECTATIONS
By Trav S. D.

  Ashley Brown

Upon reflection, it is surprising that Mary Poppins was not the first Disney property to be adopted into a Broadway musical. The show, after all, is peopled with humans and not cartoon animals. But Disney is a corporation after all and we must expect all of its creative decisions to spring from that fact. The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Tarzan are all relatively recent films-it's only natural they would receive places at the head of the assembly line in order to support sales of dvds, soundtracks, children's books and toys.

Mary Poppins, on the other hand, has nothing but its potential strengths as a legitimate stage vehicle to recommend it. Those virtues include a catalog of unforgettable and universally-known songs, a strong story arc, and opportunity for all sorts of magical effects. A common criticism of the film (one I share) has been that it actually contains too much of these elements, so much so that it lacks focus and is almost an hour too long. The stage adaptation shares all these strengths and weaknesses. This is a production that tries to have its cake and it eat it too. It incorporates a goodly amount of new characters, scenes and songs derived from the original P.L. Travers books, but it also retains as much as it possibly can from the film, presumably so as not to disappoint fans. The result is a stage show that, like the film, contains too much of a good thing but is unfocussed, digressive and bloated.

As will surprise no one, the real stars of the show are the special effects and their uncredited creators. Events from the film you might guess impossible to stage are here fully realized: Mary's bottomless carpet bag full of hat racks and lamps; a journey into a colorful world of chalk drawings; a catastrophically disordered room that magically reorganizes itself. Mary (Ashley Brown) flies around with her umbrella. And the show boasts several neat effects unique to itself. A dowager's Pomeranian is played by a puppet. Bert the chimney sweep (Gavin Lee) dances all the way up the side of the proscenium, upside down across the top, and then down the other side. These moments all achieve the desired affect. They dazzle, and anyone who is unimpressed stands justly accused of being an old poop. Magic, in the David Copperfield sense, is a realm too little explored in modern stage spectacles, and it's a joy to see these old 19th century tricks revived in the service of a story that makes logical use of them.

Yet there is another kind of magic in the theater, one that cannot be achieved with any machinery, and here the new Mary Poppins stints. Granted, co-stars Lee and Brown have mighty big shoes to fill in stepping into roles made famous by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Unfortunately, as conceived and directed, no real attempt has made to escape their shadows. Brown is a fine actress with a lovely voice; Lee is a terrific dancer. In this show, they have been assigned the thankless role of human animatronics, never given the opportunity to "own" their parts. This is especially odd given that perhaps a third of the show is original material derived directly from the books. I know it is a heresy (and probably box office suicide) but from a story perspective, much of the most cherished material from the movie really should have been cut.  On the other hand, an important sub-plot from the film, wherein the mother (Rebecca Luki) is a suffragette, has been excised thus removing the logical underpinning for the entire story. (If she's not occupied, why do the children need a substitute mother in the first place?). Instead, the story of Mr. Banks (Daniel Jenkins) has been enhanced, which only adds to the muddle. Mary Poppins, in the end, can't make up its mind whether it is a journey about a middle-aged banker learning to open up to his children, or a story about the childre

 


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