Practically Perfect in Every Way

It was a long time coming, but I finally took in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins currently ensconced in the beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theatre. I was a huge fan of the 1964 Oscar-winning film, which is the first film I can remember watching. For years, I anticipated a stage adaptation and it came to fruition in 2004 when the show opened in London starring Laura Michelle Kelly as the titular nanny and Gavin Lee as Bert, the jack-of-all-trades busker.

The show opened in the fall of 2006 at the New Amsterdam Theatre (home to The Lion King for nine years) and is the current cashcow at Disney Theatrical’s flagship theatre. The show opened with Gavin Lee crossing the pond to make an auspicious Broadway debut and American Ashley Brown as Mary. Daniel Jenkins and Rebecca Luker were cast as Mr. and Mrs. Banks. Cass Morgan was the Bird Woman and Ruth Gottschall was Miss Andrew.

I don’t know how I let the show escape my grasp, especially given my incredible excitement over its gestation, and excitement at the new material (after some initial reticence) by the British composing team of Stiles and Drewe. It’s been widely publicized, but bears repeating, that author P.L. Travers was less than thrilled with the blockbuster film adaptation. She approved of the casting of Julie Andrews, but little else. It took Cameron Mackintosh to convince her just before her death to give him the stage rights, one of the stipulations was that all Brits had to work on the stage piece, which meant that the Sherman brothers, who won two Oscars for their work on the film, wouldn’t be involved. (Even though they had worked on the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that premiered only a couple years prior). Disney and Mackintosh came together to collaborate, bringing the best of both worlds together. My first exposure to the show and Laura Michelle Kelly’s spectacular performance was through a live television performance from the British “Children in Need” telethon, very similar to what Jerry Lewis accomplishes on this side of the pond, but bringing in big West End musicals to perform. They presented the brand new “Practically Perfect” and segued into the reconceived “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and I was completely won over. Upon hearing the original London cast album, of which I literally burned several copies and just passed them out to everyone I encountered in my theatre department, I was hooked. In an ideal world, I would be in England seeing this production.

After almost two years with the show, Brown and Lee departed the NY company, taking a rest before they take up the first national tour this winter. Kelly’s London replacement Scarlett Strallen and Australian performer Adam Fiorentino stepped into the leads. By the time I got there, the show had been closed in London after three years and the Broadway production had just passed 900 performances. But, better late than never. Strallen possesses a lovely lyric soprano and bears an uncanny resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhaal. She doesn’t quite capture the steely yet affectionate quality of the role’s originator, but she finds humor and in her poised china doll smile, reveling in every moment she’s onstage. Fiorentino is nothing short of charming and matches Strallen note for note.

Much to my delight, Tony-nominees Jenkins and Luker are still with the show, as well as Gottschall. The last time I saw both Luker and Gottschall was in the recent revival of The Music Man, and had enjoyed both immensely. As for the show itself, I loved it. While not the perfect stage adaptation of the story and score that I would like, there is ample wit and heart in the book to keep the adults entertained. I have long considered myself a fan of British children’s literature, where authors revel in dark humor with the children ultimately learning something valuable by its end. Mary Poppins is no exception. In the original books, which take place in 30s London, Mary is a rather unattractive, stern vain creature who, over the course of several volumes, comes and goes from Cherry Tree Lane as she is needed. Mary is a catalyst who helps to make and sustain the Banks family as a functioning family, while looking after Jane and Michael, as well as the younger twins John and Barbara (yep, there are four Banks children in the original story). There was also a lot of commentary about class and status, which is prevalent in many Anglo-centric enterprises (from Howards End to Atonement to Keeping Up Appearances to Upstairs, Downstairs, etc).

Out of the Disney shows presented on Broadway, The Lion King generally remains the number one (with its Best Musical Tony and decade plus run). However, in spite of its great spectacle and stunning scenography it’s ultimately an emotionally vapid spectacle with very little pay-off in its script and score but compensates in its staging. For me, this show possesses great heart, especially in what is ultimately the most fascinating and complicated relationship in the play: that between Mr and Mrs. Banks. Rebecca Luker has grown immeasurably as an actress becoming the emotional anchor for the piece, creating a warm, multi-dimensional woman out of what is an underwritten but mostly fascinating role. She is lucky enough to be matched by Jenkins’ superb work as the emotionally repressed, work and class obsessed patriarch who has the greatest character arc. These two give the adults something to appreciate in what is generally considered kids’ fare. Jane Carr and Mark Price score big laughs as the put upon wait staff. The kids are cute without being cloying and Gottschall scores huge laughs as the nanny from hell, Miss Andrew.

Richard Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne provide the lucid and witty staging. Bourne and his co-choreographer Stephen Mear bring a great deal of ballet to the choreography (particularly Nelius and the “Jolly Holliday” sequence), however the high point is the tap/stomp reconception of “Step in Time” complete with Bert tap dancing upside down from the proscenium. The eye-popping elevator set by Bob Crowley complemented the action without overwhelming it. Crowley’s costumes recall the indelible images of the film, mostly for Mary and has provided colorful new looks for practically everyone else.

In my years of theatregoing I guess I’m supposed to have developed a hard cynical edge especially when it comes to theatre aimed more towards children. But rarely does a screen to stage show express such originality while paying considerable homage to its source than this one. The creative team wonderfully melds the original and new material interpolating certain numbers into scenes where they make more sense (ie “Practically Perfect” as an am/want song for Mary, pushing “Spoonful of Sugar” later on). By the curtain call, the audience was entranced. I was sitting among many adults who were also as swept up in the play, moreso than the kids I thought. There is one change to the piece that is a vast improvement on the film. Onscreen, Mary and Mrs. Banks never speak a single word to each other. Onstage, they have fleshed out a more accurate portrayal of how a nanny and matriarch would interact in a household of such stature during the Edwardian period. Also, in lieu of being busy with suffrage work, Mrs. Banks is a stay at home mother who has given up an acting career for family.

In spite of a few imperfections here and there (certain scenes could have used a bit more tightening, and the first scene could use a little work), it’s a fantastic show in fantastic shape. As Mary flew directly over me at the curtain of the show, I couldn’t but smile broadly. Was I waxing nostalgic for me not so recent yet not so distant youth? Or was I swept up in a moment of pure theatre…? Well, can’t it both?

On a side note, this marked my first time ever in the New Amsterdam Theatre, which was paintstakingly restored in the mid-90s by Disney (who holds a 99 year lease on the building). They’ve done a beautiful job of restoring the intricate design of the interior, but in particular is the lower level lounge, which when they first started renovations was completely submerged. There is a great deal of history in and around the New Amsterdam that having a look around is completely obligatory for anyone who goes to that theatre. However, it must be said that the Mark Hellinger Theatre is still the most impressive theatre interior I’ve ever seen.