Making Movies Sing on Stage

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Stereotype is the word for most of these characters. And that's appropriate, since director Michael Greif stages Act I as a pastiche and a parody of the light musical comedy that dominated Broadway between the World Wars. Underneath the strained gaiety lurks family tragedy. That sets up Act II, which is simply a musicalizing of the movie, this time with Ebersole as Little Edie and Wilson as the matriarch of that decrepit mansion.

The tone of pastiche is even more obvious in the songs. Gould's farewell number, "Drift Away," recalls the elegiac mood of "Sail Away," the Noel Coward standard. "Will You?", the pretty ballad that closes the first act, takes its tonic cue from the 1936 Brown and Freed "Would You" that was introduced in San Francisco and reprised in Singin' in the Rain. The first few bars, and the whole mood, of Little Edie's lament "Daddy's Girl," are a direct lift from Sondheim's Follies song "In Buddy's Eyes." Little Edie's second-act fashion statement, "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," is another Sondheimlich maneuver (that's David Zippel's pun, for praise or blame, not mine); and Big Edie's "The Cake I Had" takes its repetitive phrase from West Side Story's "A Boy Like That."

Give Frankel credit for stealing from the best. He's like a pickpocket with a great eye for fat wallets. But he doesn't add anything. (As TIME Theater critic Ted Kalem said of Cats back in 1982: "You'll leave the theater humming other people's better songs.") That's a shame, because Korie has a knack for clever lyrics; I'd never heard eunuch and Punic rhymed before. For the "Drift Away" bridge he conjures a lovely wistfulness — "Our tete-a-tetes, midnight duets, / Our breakfast tea and toast, / Funny how things that mean the least/ Are what we'll miss the most" — that approaches the pop poetry of Broadway's Golden Age lyric masters.

In those days, immortals like the Gershwins and Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart built shows around the top performers. Star turns are just what Broadway used to thrive on and now shrivels from; yet, glory be, here's one. You may discount the rumors that the Tony committee isn't going to bother nominating four other women for the Best Actress in a Musical award because Ebersole already has an unbreakable lock on it. But, no question, she's totally terrif: funny, sexy, domineering, pitiable, lending her formidable, witty soprano voice to two disparate roles she was born to play, in a show she's a little too good for.


As the only person in the Western world who had never seen the movie, I had no yardstick to measure the new show by, or to rap it on the knuckles — which some opening-night critics did — for inexcusable infidelity to the original. And when I finally did catch up with the film on DVD, I surprised myself by preferring the show put on by producers Cameron Mackintosh and Disney's Tom Schumacher.

The essentials are still here: the fractured London household, with pompous father George Banks (Daniel Jenkins), mother Winifred (perennial Broadway luminary Rebecca Luker) and two rambunctious children, Jane and Michael (played by three pairs of kids); the hiring of the uncanny nanny Mary Poppins (Ashley Brown); the narration by Mary's friend, Bert the chimneysweep (Gavin Lee); the rooftop dance of Bert and his proletarian pals; and most of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman's hit score. Eight of the Shermans' 14 songs (including "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious") have been retained; George Stiles and Anthony Drewe expanded some of these and wrote six new ones.

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