Having grown up watching Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins on a seemingly constant loop, I found myself entering the Segrestrom Center for the Arts Center on Friday night pretty certain that I knew exactly what I was about to see. I assumed the touring production of Mary Poppins would be similar to the touring production of The Lion King, a faithful recreation of a beloved film but adapted into a theatrical style. What a thrill it was to discover that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This production of Mary Poppins ends up a fascinating mix of the classic Disney film with some of the darker elements and storylines stemming from author P.L. Travers original text. While almost all of the elements that we know and love are still there, there is decidely more edge and thematic depth to the story on stage. The kids are brattier, Mary is slighty more intense in her vanity and the strained relationship between George and Winifred Banks is more pronounced. Of course, this doesn’t come up at the expense of any of the expected magical whimsy that the story is known for.
Characters still fly, people still dance on the ceiling, and magic seems to fill the stage. Whether it’s a visit to a park filled with dancing statues or a trip to the Heavens themselves, this is a production like no other. Like the film, this is a story epic in scope but still about a single family. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you know the characters. George Banks is a banker with no time for his wife, Winifred, or his children, Jane and Michael. He has no sense of what it is to be a child, and is determined to have a nanny raise his household with “precision and order.” As revealed in this production, he grew up with a nanny named Miss Andrew, a vile woman who is essentially the anti-Mary Poppins.
While there is a lot of thematic material in this production, it seems as if Mr. Banks’ development as a character is the real focus. Of course, it appears that Poppins is there for the children, but she seems to do more for him than for anybody, and in a way that will change the family forever. This happens in the film as well, but it seems much more pronounced in this version. Part of this journey involves the inclusion of Miss Andrew as a character in the second act. The dichotomy between these two influential forces is at once hilarious and devestating.
Of course, what is Mary Poppins without the timeless soundtrack? Almost all of the original numbers are here (although I really missed “I Love to Laugh”), and several fantastic new numbers as well. And since this is a stage production, and not a film, most of the musical numbers have been expanded. This show contains a fantastic group of performers, doing some of the most complicated choreography I’ve ever seen on stage. In particular, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (just typing that made my fingers hurt) and Step in Time are show-stopping spectacles that will bring the house down. It’s a stunning accomplishment that they were able to translate and even improve upon such perfect musical moments.
And while the new numbers might not be quite as timeless as the originals, there is still a lot of great material. Whether it’s Miss Andrew’s ode to punishment, Brimstone and Treacle, or Mary Poppins’ ode to herself, “Practically Perfect,” the new numbers are not only cathy, but relevant. They don’t feel shoehorned in, but seem to belong with all of the familiar songs we’ve already heard.
In bringing the world of Mary Poppins to life on stage, the production designers have employed an unusual and extremely appropriate technique. The Banks’ house is actually a set within the set, opening and closing like a full-size dollhouse. The whole thing feels like it came from the pages of a storybook, with the sets appearing to have a hand-drawn quality while still feeling real. It’s extremely clever, and keeps that balance between being an adaption of the film and the original books.
As for the performances, they are reminiscent of the originals, without simply copying what came before. These are unique perspectives on classic characters. Steffanie Leigh is fantastic as Mary, and I was particularly impressed that she didn’t simply mirror Julie Andrews performance. She kept the essence of the character, yet made it her own. The whole cast worked like this, and I found myself completely surprised at how new the whole thing felt, despite being so familiar.
I really wasn’t expecting this. I was prepared to be overcome with nostalgia, and want to run home to watch the original again. However, instead of focusing on what came before, I found myself focusing on what I was seeing now.
Playing at the Segrestrom Center for the Arts Center through August 7, this is a treat for the entire family, and just as “practically perfect” as the original.