(4 of 4)
Foremost among the interpolations is "Temper Temper," in which the toys in the children's bedroom come alive, giant-size, to teach kids a moral in the time-honored Disney fashion: by scaring the poop out of them. (What were Snow White and Bambi and Pinocchio if not horror movies about death and disfigurement?) Stiles and Drewe also offer a signature song for Mary Poppins, "Practically Perfect," so close to the Sherman style you'd swear it was in the original. Fiddling with the old songs, they have sharpened the humor of "Jolly Holiday" ("The gargoyles need to gargle cos their throats get rather dry") and dreamed up new rhymes for "...docious" (hypnotious, halitotious, rococococious). The wordplay is only slightly less amusing than the spectacle of theater critics pretending that the movie was a significant work of musical theater in order to slap down the current version.
What's missing here? The dancing penguins, alas; and the scene with Ed Wynn as a giggling floatation device, hurrah. I also wish Lee had the amazingly limber, leggy grace of Dick Van Dyke in the movie; but that's asking too much. No actor since the silent clowns had Van Dyke's gift for blending comedy and dance. (Brown, though she's given to wiggling her hips in a way not at all Edwardian, is fine in the title role, favoring a smiley demeanor over Julie Andrews' prim severity in the film.) And though choreographer Matthew Bourne matches the acrobatic vigor of the movie's "Step in Time," his first-act ballet involving nudish park statue must be consigned to the What Were They Thinking? bin.
More serious is the dowdying-down of the parents. As played in the movie by David Tomlinson, George was that familiar figure of British comedy, the absent-minded middle manager; and Glynis Johns' Winifred was a spunky suffragette, blithely abandoning her children to go throw squirrel eggs at the Prime Minister. Both characters had an instinctive understanding of eccentricity; when the dotty Admiral next-door neighbor would fire his cannon, they automatically would reach for the nearest vase to keep it from crashing, then replace the object as the table or vanity slid back into place after the explosion. Here the parents are standard mopes: Father a class snob, preoccupied with job anxieties, Mother demurely resentful about, as her one solo goes, "being Mrs. Banks."
But there's plenty to please an audience. Mine, as settled in, directed most of its applause to Bob Crowley's sets: of a blustery London street and the five levels of the Banks house (downstairs kitchen, living room area, parents' bedroom floor, children's attic and rooftop) a pretty astonishing achievement in imaginary architecture. He almost tops this later, with the oppressively, amusingly forced perspectives of George Banks' bank. Inside these sets, some very gifted technicians have reproduced or improved upon many of the movie's comic effects: the collapsing tables and uncrackable crockery; the materializing of large household objects a hat rack, a standing lamp, a wall mirror that Mary magically pulls from her satchel.
I was impressed by the technical legerdemain that lets Bert walk up the wall and on the ceiling of the proscenium; hadn't seen that since Fred Astaire did it in Royal Wedding, and here it's live! I liked the puppet pet that replace the movie's strenuous reliance on dog reaction shots to cue the kiddies to laugh. I loved hating Ruth Gottschall as Mrs. Andrew a nanny in the Margaret Hamilton wicked-witch mode who had warped George in his youth and returns to frighten Jane and Michael with her brimstone and treacle and three-octave range. All these effects and performances are expertly coordinated by director Richard Eyre. He both fulfills the no-trick-missed obligations of a Disney show and gives it a suave, practically perfect grandeur.
All right, sue me, I quite liked this Mary Poppins. It may not be absolutely super, but only Miss Andrews, or her avatars in the press, would rate the show any less than, well, califragilisticexpialidocious. So don't be surprised if the Broadway version outlasts the cavils of its critics. I give it a decade.