With a movie as ubiquitous and culturally important as Mary Poppins, expectations for any adaptation are high. You expect the joyful twinkle of Julie Andrews, the playful attitude of Dick van Dyke, the animated fantasy scenes. And for its flaws, the production of Mary Poppins at the PPAC comes pretty close to recreating the wonder of the original film.
For the few uninitiated, Mary Poppins is about the Banks family in turn of the century London. Mr. Banks (Michael Dean Morgan) is the strict, no-nonsense patriarch, Mrs. Banks (Elizabeth Broadhurst) is the good-intentioned mother, and the Banks children, Michael (Zach Timson) and Jane (Marissa Ackerman) are unruly, sending away every nanny they have in hysterics. That is until Mary Poppins (Rachel Wallace) arrives and, using a combination of magic and charm, helps unite the family and remind them about what is really important in life.
Wallace’s Mary Poppins was witty, confident, and as Michael likes to say, “very tricky.” Her singing voice was sweet and pleasant to listen to. And while everything she said and did was technically spit-spot, for some reason she felt cold. It was like there was a lack of caring or full emotion in her performance. Maybe it’s just because I’m so used to Julie Andrews’ Poppins, but she seemed a bit disconnected. As the show went on, this did improve, but the underlying feeling of ambivalence was always there.
All the other actors’ performances were quite good. Stand out were Broadhurst, whose Mrs. Banks was sympathetic, endearing, and good-natured, Case Dillard as jack-of-all-trades Bert (although he did make one or two noticeable missteps), and Q. Smith, who played both the pitiable Bird Woman and terrifying Mrs. Andrews, stole the stage with her huge stage presence and formidably powerful voice. Also, all the large ensemble dance numbers were very entertaining, including the chimney-sweep tap number “Step in Time” and the trippy dream-like “Jolly Holiday.”
One of the best aspects of Mary Poppins is the dynamic sets. The main house that folds out to reveal different rooms is beautiful, as are all the other settings. And the backdrops, sometimes colorful and fun and sometimes stark and dreary, always evoke the proper mood. The backdrop of the bank was especially artistic and interesting. And besides the set changes, it is a very technically involved show. Mary flies off into the skies and then descends later on via umbrella multiple times, and each time it is a magical experience, plus there are other acrobatics as well. However, at one point near the end of the first act, the show had to pause for a few minutes due to technical difficulties, which interrupted the flow. Hopefully that was a rare occurrence.
But besides the technical problems, the show had some inherent issues with flow. The first act feels extremely long, perhaps due to the many very long songs and relative lack of plot. Instead of having intense and gripping storylines, the show relies too much on its lavish musical numbers and on convincing us of Mary’s special powers. All of the show’s central plots seem rather small- Mrs. Banks throws a failed dinner party, Mr. Banks is a jerk, etc. There’s a lack of compelling drama, which makes it drag and feel shallow after a while. And some of the newly added songs just seem to lengthen it to no end; for example, the creepy “Playing the Game,” in which toys come to life in a nightmarish sequence, doesn’t seem to serve much purpose except to scare younger audience members.
But after all is said and done, Mary Poppins isn’t really about deep thinking- it’s about magic, heart, and family. The ending may be too sickly sweet for some, but that’s the show. From Mary’s mantra “anything can happen, if you let it,” it’s obvious the show is more optimistic than realistic, which is perfectly fine by me. For this generation’s kids who may have not been exposed to Mary Poppins yet, the musical is a “practically perfect” starting point. But please, show them the movie afterwards.
Mary Poppins is playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St, until February 19. Tickets can be purchased at www.ppacri.org or by calling 401-421-ARTS.