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So, can a big, square, family-friendly show like Mary Poppins make it in a season in which hip curios are in vogue? Poor Mary has already got some preopening scolding. Despite its two-year, nearly sold-out run in London (and an advance sale of more than $20 million in the U.S.), some have deemed the show too dark for delicate American kids. The chief culprit: a new number called Temper, Temper, in which toys in the children's bedroom come to life. The fears are silly; Pinocchio was scarier. But the concerns are rather sweet--as if the critics were inventing some bad behavior for their goody-goody friend to make sure she gets accepted into the cool kids' club.
In fact, Mary Poppins is not just a big, eye-pleasing production; it's Disney's most endearing, human-scaled and emotionally satisfying musical yet. The familiar Sherman Brothers score has been updated with seven new tunes (by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe), which blend in seamlessly--in some cases, even better than that, since they're more integral to character and plot, like Mary's sprightly, perfectly apropos opening number, Practically Perfect. The show strikes a nice balance between stage dazzle--avant-garde choreographer Matthew Bourne brings statues to life and defies gravity in more ways than one--and dramatic heft with a script (by Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes) that goes beyond the movie, adding material from other Travers stories.
All this subtly shifts the focus away from the children and their nanny (a spunky, Americanized Mary played by newcomer Ashley Brown) and to the adults. When the uptight Mr. Banks begins to panic that he may lose his job at the bank, there's real pain and poignancy as his crusty shell starts to crumble. (Mrs. Banks: "If you have problems, I want to share them." Mr. Banks: "Believe me, you will.") This Mary becomes a show less about children than about the loss of childhood--and about how adults learn to be parents. Which is just what a big show needs: a big subject.