Baby boomers who are hungry for a heaping helping of nostalgia will have as much fun as their children in the dazzling and buoyantly entertaining stage adaptation of the beloved 1964 Walt Disney film musical, "Mary Poppins." The national touring edition of the hit show, which premiered in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006, was first presented locally at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2009.
Though the current tour production appears to have been somewhat downsized, it’s still a gorgeously staged and melodic lark, spinning a heartwarming story of familial love punctuated by flights of fancy. The show bursts with energy, crisp humor, vibrant visuals, irresistible music and disarming stage magic.
Disney’s timelessly enjoyable fantasy film, based on the series of children’s books by P.L. Travers, won five Oscars, including a Best Actress statuette for Broadway luminary Julie Andrews in her film debut. As the Disney classic edges toward its 50th anniversary, the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh stage adaptation keeps the legend alive by adding new plot elements and several new songs that seamlessly blend with the original work of legendary siblings, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. The smart new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe emulate the enchanting music-hall style that served the Sherman Brothers well in Poppins and other memorable film musicals.
Julian Fellowes’ engaging and heartwarming if somewhat fragmented book retains much of the episodic narrative from the screenplay, while dropping some elements and substituting others. Some segments are cleverly reconceived. For example, the cleanup of the cluttered bedroom has been switched to a frantic kitchen, where Mary’s supernatural skills restore order to the disastrous room, aided by "A Spoonful of Sugar." This segment is simplified from the earlier tour mounting.
Similarly, the dancing statues in the park have now been cut down to one hoofer. Various other aspects of the production are less elaborate than they were previously. Yet the myriad locales in Bob Crowley’s magnificent storybook sets still look terrific, and greatly support the fluidity of the scenes. His costumes are also stylish and eye-popping.
The film incorporated episodes from the various Travers books, wrapping them into a story of a family needing to learn how to love each other and to appreciate the important things in life. Travers’ practically perfect, prim and proper Poppins comes across as sort of an Edwardian-era Dr. Phil, using magic rather than psychology to drive home her life lessons.
As the cheeky and mischievous nanny, Rachel Wallace boasts a pristine soprano voice, a flair for understated humor, great dancing prowess, and the requisite sense of warmth. Ashley Brown, who played this role on Broadway and in the original tour engagement, is an equally gifted performer, though purists might be happy to discover that Wallace looks and sounds more like Julie Andrews.
Wallace’s costar is the funny and limber Nicolas Dromard as the cheerful chimney sweep, Bert. Dromard is an accomplished song-and-dance man, whose luminous grin lights up the auditorium, while his comic antics land with precision. Though he doesn’t catch the buoyant Cockney flair that Brit performer Gavin Lee brought to the role on Broadway and in the previous tour stop, he shares a fine chemistry with Wallace.
And his hair-raising walk up and down the proscenium arch during the showstopping "Step in Time" dance number is a feat equal to anything seen in a "Cirque de Soleil" extravaganza. The aerial effects that enable Mary Poppins to fly are likewise awe-inspiring.
There are several other powerhouse portrayals. As the family patriarch, George Banks, a military-like disciplinarian, Michael Dean Morgan is credible and very affecting, finding humor and heart in this man’s transformation into a compassionate father and husband who learns to listen to the needs of his family. Morgan’s portrayal deftly helps illuminate thematic changes made for the stage adaptation.
Fellowes’ book aims for slightly darker and more psychologically rich undercurrents, which broadens the show’s appeal for all ages. Major credit for this is also due to Zachary Mackiewicz (alternating with Zach Timson), as George’s son, Michael whose chemistry with Morgan is superb.
As daughter Jane, Cherish Myers (alternating with Marissa Ackerman) is a gifted young performer, generating warmth and spunk in equal measure. As the beleaguered matriarch, Mrs. Banks, Elizabeth Broadhurst is likewise memorable, bringing out the poignancy and social commentary in the fine new Stiles-Drewe song, "Being Mrs. Banks."
Other stellar turns include those of Q Smith, who sparkles in two choice supporting roles-Miss Andrews, an evil nanny character that wasn’t in the film. Smith relishes her tour-de-force moments in the powerful new number, "Brimstone and Treacle" and as the elderly Bird Woman in the gorgeous Sherman Brothers song, "Feed the Birds."
The singing and dancing ensemble is also first-rate, with nods due to choreographer/co-director Matthew Bourne, music director Daniel Bowling, music supervisor David Caddick and orchestrator William David Brown. A supercalifragilisticexpialidocius evening is guaranteed.
"Mary Poppins" runs through September 2 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in L.A. For info or tickets, call 213-072-4400 or visit centertheatregroup.org.