The English love nannies and all talk thereof — not for nothing is Britain often referred to as the “nanny state” — and they won’t be the only ones who love the long-aborning stage musical of “Mary Poppins” as long as there are children willing to spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” First stage collaboration between Thomas Schumacher’s Disney Theatricals and Brit mogul Cameron Mackintosh brings acres of producing know-how to the table, drawing its creative team from film (book writer Julian Fellowes), the subsidized theater (director Richard Eyre) and a gifted if essentially unknown cast, which flies with the sort of material that never dates: the mysteriously airborne Mary Poppins as a healing force.
Why, then, are the final results of this latest film-to-stage transcription not “practically perfect,” to borrow the title of one of the better new songs from the Olivier Award-winning team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (“Honk! The Ugly Duckling”) that supplement the Sherman Brothers standards? (Gone, thankfully, is Mrs. Banks’ “Sister Suffragette,” since the character no longer is one.)
That, I’m afraid, has to do with gathering longueurs, some entirely expendable numbers and the all-but-inevitable descent into treacle that gets stickier — and more prone to self-help homilies (“Anything can happen if you let it”) — the closer we get to Mary’s majestic eleventh-hour ascent toward the balcony. Perhaps “Mary Poppins” onstage might have done better to take its cue from an unknowable heroine, teasing us with the power of suggestion rather than magicking its way toward a starlit faux-mysticism that will guarantee the tuner ample touring dates in the red states even as savvier audiences turn just a little blue.
Luckily, these issues tend to stockpile late in the second act, which leaves a longer first half to offer up an indecently entertaining narrative that both expands on the time-honored story from the film while largely reinventing it by going back to the source books of the late Pamela Travers.
A brooding touch at the start of William David Brohn’s typically lustrous orchestrations finds darker colors than are usually heard in “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” hinting that a more adult stage “Poppins” isn’t content merely to canter through a classic kids film in the brain-numbing, clap-happy style of London’s competing Sherman Bros. entry, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Scarcely have we glimpsed the invitingly multi-tiered Edwardian-era interior of the Banks family household before it is clear that 17 Cherry Tree Lane is no less a discordant household than that of the oh-so-swell Condomines in another West End frolic, Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”
George Banks (a sad-eyed David Haig) is a snappish, baleful soul, short on time and resistant to affection. His wife Winifred (Linzi Hateley, late of the legendary “Carrie,” in gorgeous voice) is kinder but also fretful and neurotic, a onetime actress far from happy in her current domestic role as Mrs. Banks.
No wonder the Banks children Jane (Charlotte Spencer) and Michael (Harry Stott, a precocious 9-year-old who on this evidence soon will be headlining the London preem of “Laugh Whore”) are referred to as “little beasts,” having seen off six nannies in the last four months. What they need is affection, respect and maybe even love, not to mention a nanny who can transform their rooftop bedroom with the flick of a “tricky” — that is young Michael’s word — wrist. (The ability of the set to mutate — at one point collapsing and then entirely righting itself in a calamitous kitchen scene — is just one of the triumphs of Bob Crowley’s design, whose ceaseless inventions extend to the Edward Gorey-esque columns of the bank from which Mr. Banks is suspended.)
Mary Poppins, you see, is an agent of transformation, a bearer of renewal who seems far shrewder than the textbook platitudes (“If you reach for the heavens, you get the stars”) she ends up having to dish out. And Laura Michelle Kelly, who was efficient if colorless in Broadway’s ongoing “Fiddler on the Roof,” gets the part exactly right: Witty yet slightly elusive, beautiful but with the slight suggestion of steeliness, she incarnates afresh a singular character who exists entirely out of context, Mary Poppins’ whereabouts as subject to change, one senses, as the shifting winds.
The show is exceedingly well acted down the line, which surely honors helmer Eyre’s proven gift for thespian detail. Gavin Lee brings a grit to the smiley-faced Bert that overhauls the role. He’s also in command of some splendidly supple footwork that, during “Step in Time,” finds Lee making his vertiginous way up, around, and over the theater’s proscenium arch in what is the (literally) dizzying high point of Matthew Bourne and co-choreographer Stephen Mear’s dances. (Visually, too, “Step in Time” pays homage to the silhouetted rooftops across which the chimney sweeps swoop their way in the movie.)
If “Step in Time” raises the roof in act two, the first-act pacesetter is surely “Supercalifragilistic…,” here wittily refashioned as a song about the very purchase of conversation: Between that and Bert’s subsequent attempt to spell the word “welcome” on an abstract expressionist Crowley scrim, “Mary Poppins” may justify a ticket for generations of parents who will be amazed to find a popular entertainment that actually makes language fun.
It’s with that in mind that one wishes the eventual slide into bathos wasn’t quite so pronounced (“The Lion King” had much the same arc). The expanded psychology of the piece is evident from the (dubious) insertion of a new first-act number, “Temper Temper,” which seems to derive from another show altogether, and the arrival for an extended second-act cameo of Mr. Banks’ onetime nanny, the shrewish Miss Andrew (a squinty Rosemary Ashe), who presumably exists in order to give the piece its own pantomime baddie, a la the Childcatcher in “Chitty.”
Given material so keen to play every available emotional card, one is doubly impressed — moved, even — when Michael announces on cue his love for Mary Poppins, who doesn’t say the L-word back. Instead, she prepares to wing her way wistfully onward, no doubt to the next damaged household. And as she is lifted further and further upward, so, too, is an audience lost in thrall to an iconic figure who remains eternally and, yes, lovingly out of reach.