“Mary Poppins” – ASU Gammage

This review aired on KBAQ February 15, 2010


Broadway Across America – Arizona, ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

The stage adaptation of Disney’s magical “Mary Poppins” arrived last week at ASU Gammage, and the scaled down but still elaborate touring version flows better than the clunky Broadway one.

The main change is the Banks’ house. On Broadway, it’s a massive three story structure that lumbers into place by plodding downstage. The massive construction drags the show’s pace to a creaky crawl.

For the tour, Disney Theatricals and British co-producer Cameron Mackintosh needed a more efficient house. Designer Bob Crowley created a clever structure that appears upstage as a small exterior elevation. As this swiftly moving piece glides forward, it unfolds to become the lush mansion. It’s not as spectacular as Broadway but it works better so this touring “Mary Poppins,” while still too long for the little ones, moves briskly.

Since the show centers in and around the Banks’ family including stern father George, kind but ineffectual mother Winifred, and two precocious children, Jane and Michael, the mansion is critical. The extraordinary nanny, Mary Poppins, arrives from nowhere to bring Jane and Michael the adventures their parents haven’t provided.

The stage version lacks the movie’s magic even though Mary still does much stage trickery. It eliminates the movie’s most magical moment, “I Love to Laugh,” and it’s belabored with four new but ineffective songs. Only “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” improves on the film version. The stage flying is limited to Mary but she gets around dramatically especially in her dazzling departure.

The touring cast is mixed. Caroline Sheen, London’s replacement Mary, lacks the magical personality of the original stage Mary and she pales when compared to Julie Andrews’ spit-spot movie performance. Gavin Lee, who created Bert in London and New York, charms, bedazzles, and actually betters Dick Van Dyke’s film interpretation as Mary’s charming chimney-sweep friend and excursion cohort. Since he shines over Sheen’s pale Mary, it throws the show off center.

The kids who played Jane and Michael opening night, Katie Balen and Bryce Baldwin, and who alternate in the roles, were the best stage kids I’ve ever seen. Laird Mackintosh’s bland George and Blythe Wilson’s charmless Winifred add nothing.

While clever but repetitious, director Richard Eyre’s staging and Matthew Bourne’s choreography drag out the musical and never allow it to soar.

Phoenix is lucky to see this large “Mary Poppins” that in many ways is better than Broadway’s version and while the stage version isn’t as magical as the film, it is still an entertaining, if overly long, delight. It plays through February 28 at ASU Gammage. For tickets, go to the ASU Gammage box office or any Ticketmaster box office or order online at www.asugammage.com.

Grade: B