The partnership between producing powerhouses Disney and Cameron Mackintosh was bound to yield a mega-“Mary Poppins.” With the behemoth shows that led the British invasion of Broadway in the 1980s, Mackintosh made “bigger is better” his manifesto. And Disney’s ventures into musical theater can hardly be called modest in scale. So it’s perhaps not surprising the lavish adaptation of P.L. Travers’ beloved stories of a magical nanny is somewhat overstuffed. That quibble aside, the show is also bursting with dazzling stagecraft, stunning design, old-fashioned storytelling virtues and genuine charm.
Mackintosh and Disney have assembled an impressive creative pool that includes Richard Eyre, a director versed in classics and new works; choreographer and co-director Matthew Bourne, who has re-energized dance with his cinematically inspired ballets; screenwriter Julian Fellowes, whose work on “Gosford Park” made him an experienced navigator of bustling English households; and designer Bob Crowley, whose eye-popping sets eclectically reference Christopher Wren, Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and beyond.
With such distinctive personalities involved, this clearly was not going to be a straight-up translation of the 1963 Disney movie, often accused of putting a saccharine gloss on Travers’ stories — starting with the title character. While Julie Andrews forever painted the nanny in the kindly “Spoonful of Sugar” mode, Travers’ creation was altogether more tart. Probably no one’s ideal employee, Mary Poppins was strictly no-nonsense — vain, discourteous and rarely compliant.
When the show bowed in London in 2004, the character leaned decidedly in the author’s direction. Laura Michelle Kelly was so severe in the role that one hoped money was being put aside for the Banks children’s therapy bills. On Broadway, she’s no less self-governing and strong-willed and, in the form of Ashley Brown, she has the defiant chin of a cartoon astronaut. But the part has been subtly softened. Her clipped diction, clasped hands and stiff poise make it clear this Mary is nobody’s servant. But with Brown’s warm manner and crisp soprano, her benevolence is never in doubt.
Fellowes has focused on Mary as a healing spirit for a dysfunctional family, displayed like lab rats in Crowley’s enchanting three-story Edwardian doll’s house set. George Banks (Daniel Jenkins) is a slave to his career, determined to push his former actress wife, Winifred (Rebecca Luker), into a more elevated social circle while devoting little time and attention to his unruly children, Jane and Michael (Katherine Leigh Doherty and Matthew Gumley, respectively, alternating with two other actors in each role).
Umbrella and carpetbag in hand, Mary flies in on the east wind to set things right and then flies away to the west to wherever she’s needed next, forming no attachments.
While the show’s twin pursuits of fantasy and family counseling are not entirely harmonious, Fellowes’ book installs a neat symmetry of opposites that the famously punctilious Travers might have admired. This is evident in two of the new numbers by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who also adapted the lyrics of the Sherman Bros. songs popularized in the film. Mr. Banks advocates “Precision and Order” while Mary preaches “Anything Can Happen If You Let It.”
That sense of contrast is everywhere in the show: In the well-heeled folks strolling in the park and the soot-stained chimney sweeps cavorting on London’s rooftops; in the desire to accumulate wealth that drives George’s bank cronies and the gentle call to “Feed the Birds” of the ragged old woman (Cass Morgan) outside St. Paul’s Cathedral; in the wintry gray shades of reality and the watercolor wonderland opened up by Mary in “Jolly Holiday” (in which Bourne’s touch is evident in the prancing statues).
It’s also there in Mary’s cure-all remedy of “A Spoonful of Sugar” vs. the “Brimstone and Treacle” favored by George’s childhood nanny Miss Andrew (Ruth Gottschall). The latter number, however, feels like an add-on that exists merely to accommodate a villain. Likewise “Temper, Temper,” in which toys come menacingly to life to discipline the ill-behaved Banks tykes. Reports that the scene will terrify infants seem exaggerated, but the superfluous song brings about an intrusive tonal shift.
There seems to be an unspoken rule that shows have to skirt three hours or London audiences will feel swindled. On Broadway, greater economy is welcomed and the producers’ refusal to trim more than 10 minutes from “Mary Poppins” will challenge the attention span of children, especially in the protracted 90-minute first act. But reprise-laden excesses aside, there’s much to savor here.
With minor exceptions including “I Love to Laugh,” the unlamented “Sister Suffragette” and one regrettable casualty, the lovely lullaby “Stay Awake,” all the Sherman standards are here, entertainingly reconceived by Eyre and Bourne.
Bourne and co-choreographer Stephen Mear’s athletic dance routines are at their liveliest in “Jolly Holiday” and the rambunctious rooftop tap number, “Step in Time,” while “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is animated by fun semaphore spelling moves. “Spoonful of Sugar” is played for comedy, with the Banks’ kitchen collapsing in chaos only to be reassembled with a flick of Mary’s wrist. But it’s the simpler staging that often captivates most, in the melancholy “Feed the Birds” or the joyous “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
Of the new songs, Mary’s glowing self-assessment, “Practically Perfect,” is a tuneful addition, and “Being Mrs. Banks,” gorgeously sung by Luker, provides touching insight into the insecurities of a loving but underappreciated wife.
Principals and ensemble are solid all around, with Jenkins providing emotional ballast as George, whose sensitization is the story’s central journey. But without detracting from the engaging Brown, the show’s guiding spirit is Gavin Lee’s Bert, the original London cast’s sole carryover.
A lithe beanpole who handles dance duties with infectious ease, Lee saunters through the show on rubberized legs, wearing a grin that won’t quit. He makes the expanded role of Bert as charmed, chipper and enigmatic a figure as Mary, threading together the action with occasional snatches of “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” And his seeming authenticity helps erase the memory of Dick Van Dyke’s bizarre Cockney accent in the film.
Mary’s climactic ascent, soaring above the orchestra seats almost within arm’s reach of the mezzanine and balcony before disappearing into the heavens, is a feat both simple and enthralling. But Bert almost steals the show in “Step in Time” as he taps his way up and around the entire proscenium arch. While there’s no shortage of scenic wizardry on display here, it’s a beguiling touch that this show’s two most memorable, awe-inspiring effects have a human face.