An explosion of song, color and dance overflows from the Ahmanson's considerable stage.
An explosion of song, color and dance that overflows from the Ahmanson’s considerable stage, “Mary Poppins” is the rare touring production that over-delivers at every level. Broadway leads Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee deliver pert, perfectly tuned perfs, and every element that surrounds them — the ensemble, Bob Crowley’s tone-shifting sets and costumes, the powerhouse orchestra — makes this one of the most satisfying road shows to hit an L.A. stage.
The technical razzle-dazzle of the West End-Broadway hit not only remains intact, the execution is spot-on — from the grand (airborne kites, a nanny that flies and another who dissolves) to the subtle (a flower responding to a scream, a magic trick involving a bouquet and a canvas). Second act’s “Step in Time” is the evening’s show-stopper, an adroit combination of tap, “Stomp” and Astaire. As mesmerizing as “Jolly Holiday” is in the first act — Van Gogh in an ice cream parlor colors, stately movement and the first of many full-bodied group vocal performances — the complexity of “Step’s” steps push the show into another realm. Impressively, the stage craft always complements the story: Director-choreographers Richard Eyre and Matthew Bourne fill the stage and then some without raising doubt as to where the eye should focus.
As the otherworldly nanny Poppins and spirited chimney sweep Bert, Brown and Lee negotiate rooftops, bedrooms and the out-of-doors with compelling assuredness. Their flawlessness sets a standard that the ensemble meets, and that includes even the youngsters Bailey Gray and Carter Thomas, who play brattiness, amazement and the need to be loved without artifice. Their transformation under Poppins is affecting viscerally; it’s more convincing than the catharsis Mom and Pop Banks (Megan Osterhaus and Karl Kenzler) experience as they negotiate marital and family issues.
Curiously, the 2009 tour of “Poppins” bears newborn resonance that did not exist when unveiled in the anything-goes economic climate of 2004. Though the story is set 100 years ago, the Banks family’s fear that George (Kenzler) will lose his job and home due to bad financial decisions has a striking relevance to modern times. Crowley’s depiction of the financial world (old and menacing in shades of gray and black) feels all the more realistic in the wake of the financial crisis of the last two years. It’s a cartoon in one sense, but an ominous reality in this day and age.
Of course, not everyone is about to be offered quadruple their salary to return to an old job as happens to George. But by enhancing the plot point that gave the 1964 Disney film its Hollywood ending — that family time is as important as logging hours at the workplace — “Poppins” appears mighty prescient, a colorful balm for hard times and a sumptuous buffet during the good.
Certainly family-friendly, the distinction between dark and light, the disposal of the “holy terror” nanny and the anthropomorphism of the kids’ toys may be too mystifying or frightening for preschoolers.