The run of plays during my London visit ends on 30 May 07. The last play is ‘Mary Poppins’ at the Prince Edward Theatre. Because rights to the movie and book are owned separately by Disney and Cameron Macintosh (“Les Miserables"), two of the most successful producers in theatre, they have joined forces to present a story that combines elements from both mediums. Julian Fellowes, Oscar winning screenwriter of “Gosford Park”, takes on the task of adapting the two to the stage. He has devised a mix of whimsy that is at times enchanting and sometimes underwhelming but reported to be closer to the vision of the book’s author P.L. Travers.
Growing up in London in 1910, the unruly Jane and Michael Banks need a nanny. They write an ad to put in The Times stipulating that she must ‘have a cheery disposition. Rose cheeks, no warts. Play games, all sorts.’ Their father, who is incapable of giving or receiving love, views the ad as all nonsense. All the while their mother wishes for some deeper connection between them all. This sets for the mysterious arrival of Mary Poppins but the games she has in mind are not at all what the children expected.
Bob Crowley continues his string of ingenious set designs. The massive lifesize dollhouse set of the Banks family home dramatically reveals different levels from the ground to the lower and upper floors and finally to the rooftop. London Barbie & Ken would be happy here. In addition there are moments of some on-stage magic. From her carpet bag Mary incredibly pulls out among things a hat stand as well as a sheet that miraculously turns into a bed. In another moment, Mary does indeed take flight with her umbrella over the audience and up into the uppermost reaches of the Prince Edward auditorium.
One key element in making the show work is casting the Banks children. Naturally there is a rotation of children that fill out the parts of Jane and Michael during the eight performances each week. The two at this performance were just okay to say the least. It would help if there were a believable transformation of the children between the two acts. Perhaps it may have been these two young actors or maybe the book writer is to blame also.
All the well-loved songs are presented including “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Supercalifragi…..”, well you know the title. To augment the movie songs by the Sherman Brothers, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have concocted some songs in the similar simple but melodic style. They succeed in the sweeter numbers “Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen”. They are less successful in more dramatic songs such as “Temper, Temper” and “Brimstone and Treacle”.
The choreography comes full tilt in the dazzling “Step In Time” number. In the scene Bert, the chimney sweep (among his many trades), literally tap dances 360 degrees along the walls and ceiling of the proscenium arch. Equally fun is the hand acrobatics during the song “Supercal…”, yeah that song again. The production number featuring the toys that come alive seems extraneous and the “Jolly Holiday” segment is enjoyable if just a tad bit too long. Note to parents: the running time is 2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission.
As Mary Poppins, Scarlett Strallen creates a character that is stern and endearing. She delivers a warm and scrumptious performance and is so poised throughout that she literally glides up and down the Banks' staircase. Equally interesting is her on stage pairing with Gavin Creel as Bert. There is some uncanny connection between the two that I credit to these two actors. It almost makes one want the story to veer toward exploring their relationship and opening the mysteries of their past and maybe future. Creel reveals a natural charm in his scenes and a knack for bravely tackling the intricate choreography.
The look of the production is exceptional and professional and the story is not as syrupy as the film. Though never reaching the heights of perfection that Mary would demand of herself, the production does has its moments. Taking a line from one of the songs, “Practically perfect in every way?” Not quite.
‘Mary Poppins’ plays at the Prince Edward Theatre to 12 Jan 08. Current performance times are Wed-Sat 7:30, Tues 7pm, Matinees Tues 2pm, Thu & Sat 2:30pm. Ticket prices: GBP15-59. Book tickets at www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk. The Original London Cast Recording available on iTunes or on CD from Walt Disney Records. More information at www.marypoppinsthemusical.co.uk Production photographs used for illustration purposes only.
NOTE: 7/1/07 - 'Mary Poppins' at the Prince Edward Theatre will close on January 12, 2008.