One day after the first Republican presidential candidate debate here in Cleveland last Thursday, this reviewer headed off to see the light and airy musical Mary Poppins at the Mercury Theatre Company. And try as I might, my impressions of this show — with music and lyrics by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman and a book by Julian Fellowes — were substantially affected by the backwash from the Fox News broadcast. So this review will reflect those two theatrical events, drawing connections that are clearly inevitable.
As you may know, this stage version of the Poppins' saga is a mash-up of the book series by P.L. Travers and the 1964 Disney film, celebrating the magical nanny who employs her mystical powers to save the Banks' nuclear family. Her mission seems similar to the promises of the 17 presidential aspirants on stage at the two debates last week, each promising a world that, in Ms. Poppins' terminology, would be "practically perfect in every way" if only they could occupy the Oval Office.
The beloved Mary P., played and sung with vigor by Jennifer Myor, instantly gets the two rambunctious Banks kids to warm up to her by pulling a hat rack, a large plant, and other unlikely bric-a-brac from her rather small valise. As little Michael Banks (Niko Ustin) notes, "We'd better keep an eye on her." In this respect, Donald Trump was very Poppins-ish at the debate as he continually pulled huge promises out of the clear blue without any idea how those things could happen in the real world.
Mr. George Banks, the pater familias of the Banks household, is a proper and demanding sort who doesn't know how to relate to his family, until he faces a crisis at the bank where he works. In this role, Jonathan Bova is often more messy than natty, and he doesn't quite capture the ramrod inflexibility of his character. He was sort of like Jeb Bush, who continually struggled to exhibit presidential gravitas while standing next to the whirling blonde tonsorial explosion that is The Donald.
Eventually in the play, we learn that Mr. Banks' personality problems stem from his time under the control of Miss Andrew, the nanny-from-hell that brought him up as a child using vile spoonfuls of "Brimstone and Treacle." As Miss Andrews, marvelous Hester Lewellen swallows the scenery in huge gulps as she hisses and sneers through that song and all her other offensive activities. Compare that to Rand Paul, the curly-haired candidate who tried to pick fights with both Trump and Gov. Chris Christie and was ultimately shoved aside, as is Miss Andrew, after a large dose of her own medicine.
Sure, there are other Poppins-Republican comparisons, such as matching Bert the chimney sweep with Gov. John Kasich, who tried to scour the grime off the Republican brand by stating a desire to take care of people who are less fortunate. Indeed, Kasich seemed in tune with the bottom line message of Mary Poppins, that people are more important than profits. This may be why Kasich's candidacy is probably doomed, since Republican primary voters are dominated by those who divide the world into "makers" and "takers."
Setting the debates aside (reluctantly), this production by the Mercury Theatre Company, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, displays all the strengths of this theater company. The leads have excellent singing voices and Brault is adept at fashioning some breathtaking tableaux, especially in big, bodacious production numbers such as "Step in Time." And the choreography by Melissa Bonde makes good use of the large cast while hiding some individual weaknesses as dancers.
Brault always tries some interesting staging techniques, and some of them work in this show, such as the large wheeled stairway that transports Mary up an aisle at the end of the show. But others, such as some kites and an umbrella sliding down on cables over the audience, were less than stunning. But give Mercury a gold star for trying things that fit into a budget that certainly is not as capacious as Poppins' bottomless carry-on.
As for the rest of the cast, Brian Marshall poses handsomely as Bert, singing and dancing effectively as always. But one wishes that Marshall would take more chances and add some rash, improv spirit to this role, as he has in other productions. When unleashed, Marshall can be hilarious and riveting. Kayleigh Collins handles her duties as Jane Banks well, as does Dana Aber in the rather colorless role of Mrs. Banks (it's a much feistier role in the movie). And Natalie Golz and Noah Spiegel-Blum add some laughs as the Banks' servants.
This is the final show of the Mercury season, and this company of mostly young performers remains a treasure for those who love musical theater. And no matter what you say, Donald, there is no debate about that.