'Mary Poppins' lands at the Kennedy Center

Hit musical skims the surface in entertaining fashion

July 10, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Impervious to cynicism and layered with critic-retardants, "Mary Poppins" has plopped into the Kennedy Center Opera House for a nice long stay that should keep the box office humming.

The musical, a Disney/Cameron Mackintosh presentation that boasts the theatrical bells and whistles expected from those forces, might not fully satisfy folks devoted to, and expecting a copy of, the popular 1964 movie that inspired it. Devotees of the children's book series by P.L. Travers that started it all might find a nit or two to pick as well.

But this version of "Mary Poppins" contains a surefire arsenal of diverting devices practically guaranteed to engage kids and keep adults from squirming. It's easy to see why it proved to be such a hit in London when it premiered in 2004 and again, two years later, when it arrived on Broadway, where it's still going strong.

Curiously, though, for a show that makes a point of teaching the value of learning "to see past what you see," the musical sticks with surface details. You might call even it super-cali-ficial.

While packing in a lot of song and dance, the plot is reduced to a rapid succession of events and fly-by issues. In the end, the title character is something of a one-note wonder; her buddy, the multitasking Bert, becomes a glorified emcee, introducing persons and scenes, but rarely becoming integrally involved with either; and the Banks family, which undergoes many a change when Poppins pops in unexpectedly to become the best nanny ever, doesn't really get a chance to register fully.

Still, the determination to entertain, so evident at every turn of scenery and phrase, has an undeniable impact. By the time Bert does his impossible dance on the ceiling and Mary floats placidly out of the theater (an effect that subtly outdoes even the celebrated chandelier from Mackintosh's "The Phantom of the Opera"), resistance is pretty much futile.

This national tour features Caroline Sheen, who took the title role in the original United Kingdom tour a couple years ago; and Gavin Lee, who was the first Bert in London and New York.

Sheen can enunciate everyone else off the stage, but I wish her acting revealed a little more personality, her singing voice a little more color. Although her deadpan delivery is certainly cute, she begins to look and sound robotic, making it seem less likely that the two unruly Banks children would end up adoring her so. It's an accomplished, rather than endearing, performance.

Lee is a most likable Bert, always natural in speech, song and dance. He manages to convey more about the character than is written, and quickly draws the audience in with his disarming delivery. There is an easy flow to his dancing, as well, and he makes the show-stealing, upside-down journey across the proscenium seem like just another lark.

Laird Mackintosh is a sympathetic George Banks, the husband and father too obsessed with work to pay attention to what matters at home. Blythe Wilson, as Winifred Banks, does charming work. As the two children who tend to drive nannies crazy, Bailey Grey (Jane) and Carter Thomas (Michael) are generally persuasive. (Another pair of actors alternate in these roles on the tour.)

The large supporting cast is enlivened considerably by the efforts of some fine character actors. Rachel Izen makes a vivid Mrs. Brill, the Banks' housekeeper; this is how I imagine Angela Baddeley — Mrs. Bridges on the TV classic "Upstairs Downstairs" — would have played it. Mike O'Carroll, who takes on a couple of parts with flair, is especially effective as the imposing Bank Chairman. Mary VanArsdel does an admirable job in the potentially cloying role of the Bird Woman.

There's a scene-chewing contribution from Ellen Harvey, as the ferocious Miss Andrew, the nanny from hell. She has a voice that can be heard in Richmond and a delightfully unnerving way of elongating a syllable.

The production, originally directed by Richard Eyre, gets a lot of mileage out of Bob Crowley's scenic design, including a nifty two-story house for the Banks and a terrific dash of black-and-white for the interior bank scenes. Matthew Bourne's choreography adds some imaginative flourishes.

"Mary Poppins," which mingles music from the movie and newly composed material, does not have the most brilliant score in the repertoire. The endlessly reprised and kind of annoying "Chim Chim Cher-ee" still sounds like something discarded from an early draft of "Fiddler on the Roof"; "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is more notable for the title than the tune. But the songs get the job done, and they all receive enthusiastic attention here.

For that matter, the whole show, fueled by more than a spoonful of sugar, is quite an easily digested summertime treat.

If you go

"Mary Poppins" runs through Aug. 22 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets are $25 to $135. Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.

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