The Disney-Cameron Mackintosh production of Mary Poppins, currently ensconced at PlayhouseSquare, carries more sleight-of-hand wizardry than the original-cast production of World War I. Yet its most uncanny special effect is the way it perpetuates the almost opiate-like illusion of being as "practically perfect" as its titular nanny.
Be advised: You may have to slap some sense back into a few beaming tykes or rhapsodic grannies. For, in all candor, the show amounts to little more than the act of a high-budget Frankenstein — a monster stitched out of powerful, conflicting forces.
First, there's the controlling hand of author P.L. Travers, who sought in her will to wrest the story back from Disney and return it to the creative hands of the British. Then there are the ghostly reveries of Disney's 1964 film that formulated a whole generation of pre-adolescent ids. Finally, throw in Disney's egomaniacal control and the relentless will of British producer Mackintosh.
The fruits of this uneasy alliance are anything but shoddy. There is enough talent and more than a spoonful of money to produce at least a half-dozen moments of Barnum & Bailey euphoria.
Lifted from antique MGM musicals is the "Jolly Holiday" picnic saunter, turned into a mini-variation of the "American in Paris" ballet with dancing statues replacing the film's penguins. Those with fond memories of Fred Astaire's Royal Wedding cavort on the ceiling will take equal pleasure at the similar strut that Gavin Lee's disarming (and underused) Bert performs at the top of the proscenium. And even the most ardent devotees of the movie will agree that the carnival-like expansion of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" manages to be even more fanciful than its 1964 incarnation.
But here's the rub: Too many cooks have spoiled the broth. The film's surefire screenplay has been deconstructed to make way for that most chilling of musical intrusions: psychological verisimilitude. Added from the Travers books is an evil alter-ego nanny, the opposite of Mary Poppins: Miss Andrews, the destroyer of children's souls. A central conflict between Andrews and Poppins could have made for a fascinating show, light-years away from the movie, but the show's book writers sadly dispense with it by including a resolution that carries the emotional weight of an encounter from Bewitched.
The script has been so fractured that neither Poppins nor Bert, her courting chimney sweep, control the story. Ashley Brown's well-sung Poppins bears a frightening resemblance to Joan Crawford at her most icily ruthless, and she seems to have little more purpose than to perform her musical numbers and strike inscrutable poses as she floats up and down the staircase.
The creators of the original movie score, brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, had the Irving Berlin-like ability to mold melodies that seem to inhabit the psyche forever. In contrast, the clever, serviceable new songs, by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, lack childhood delight.
The show, in the manner of Poppins' magic tonic, changes flavor with every scene. The ingredients never come together like a recipe that rises to culinary triumph.
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