Part P. L. Travers, part Disney, part Cameron Mackintosh, “Mary Poppins” is a surprisingly and refreshingly enchanting family show that, like the wondrous nanny herself, is practically perfect in every way.
Mackintosh, the same producer that brought us such mega-hits as “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” among others, had tried to bring “Mary Poppins” to the stage since well before his heyday, but like Walt Disney himself, Mackintosh ran into the stumbling block of having to convince Poppins creator and author Travers that he could do full justice to her character. It didn’t help that Travers reportedly ended up despising the Disney film adaptation while nonetheless having enormously profited from it by shrewdly having held out for a percentage of it.
Travers wanted a new score, but Mackintosh wisely realized that the double Academy Award-winning music of the Sherman Brothers that had become an indelible part of the Poppins mythos was an essential element to include, assuming that a partnership could somehow be reached with the Disney company—which at that point had not even formed its own theatrical unit. Mackintosh’s legendary persistence ended up spanning a quarter of a century (Travers had meanwhile sold Mackintosh the stage rights but then died in 1996) and the cautious interest that evolved into eventual cooperation of Disney in the person of show co-producer Thomas Schumacher.
As a result, not only does the play include several of the film’s most beloved songs, but songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe were brought in to incorporate the Sherman Brothers songs and score as the backdrop for a much broader, virtually through-composed musical work complete with new songs, the overall effect of which verges on operetta, with plenty of arias, ensemble numbers and recitative sections complete with recurring Wagnerian leitmotivs that really bring the story quite convincingly to life.
The role of dance is also greatly expanded, and choreographer Matthew Bourne not only transforms the familiar Disney dances but virtually every adventure outside of the Banks home is thoroughly danced, and what spectacular and breathtaking dances they are, made all the more so by the stunning costumes, storybook sets and stage tableaux that often are genuinely art-worthy. This is a rethinking of “Poppins” as aesthetic and top-notch as when Disney let Julie Taymor rethink “The Lion King.”
And if it’s gravity-defying action that you crave, there is plenty of that here: yes, Mary Poppins (Rachel Wallace) flies, to be sure, and not just in a single scene as Elphaba “Wicked” did. Remember, this is Cameron Mackintosh, the guy who began the trend of huge stage effects, for better or worse, by bringing us falling chandeliers and landing helicopters, and he knew he had to top himself, and top himself, he does. Mary is airborne during no less than in three climactic scenes that are brilliantly timed for maximum dramatic effect, and one departure astonishingly continues on above the heads of audience members all the way up into the balcony and the theater rafters.
As the original Bert when this national tour opened here two and a half years ago, Gavin Lee makes the “Step in Time” dance of the chimney sweepers equally as spectacular with a tap dance that continues vertically on up the side of the stage’s proscenium; he continues dancing right up the stage-left edge as intently and convincingly as he had on the ground, reaching the top and then actually tap-dancing upside-down up across the ceiling á la Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding” without ever breaking a smile and without missing a beat, before repeating the effect in reverse across and then back down stage-right all the way back to the floor. Watching Nicolas Dromard’s rather drab-by-comparison attempt to do the same stunt revealed that despite the impressive stagecraft involved, the effect is as much about the performer as the effects. (Dennis Polkow)
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, (800)775-2000. $25-$90. Through November 6.