There's no secret why the hit musical Mary Poppins has filled more than 9 million seats around the world over the last seven years. It's getting an extended run at the Providence Performance Arts Center through February 19, where audience members can appreciate its major appeal: spectacle.
SPOONING OUT THE SUGAR Rachel Wallace as Mary Poppins.
• A phalanx of strutting chimney sweeps filling the stage like a flock of sooty good-luck storks.
• An overcast walk in the park blossoming into color as though Judy Garland has just stepped into Oz.
• A street-full of candy shop customers exploding into frolic like a bagful of human-size dancing gummy bears.
• The song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" turning into an elaborate production number that's almost as long as the word.
Of course, musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh combined forces with the Walt Disney operation so that we could re-enjoy some of the charming songs from the movie.
Yes, all of the familiar notes are struck, each with the thunderous punctuation of Big Ben.
Less can be so much more. The 1964 film adaptation of the P.L. Travers stories had an elegantly entertaining directness, a simplicity that briskly conveyed simple relationships. A new nanny, Mary Poppins, magically parachutes down with her umbrella and wins over a mischievous brother and sister, who went through six nannies in the last four months, with firmness but affection. Several other characters are amiable fun, from Jack-of-all-trades Bert, with whom they leap into his sidewalk drawing for a frolicking in the country, to merry Uncle Albert, who floats to the ceiling when he laughs.
In supersizing the story, much of the magic is lost, at least metaphorically. Literal magic remains, even supplemented by statues coming to life in the park fantasy. As Mary Poppins and Bert, Rachel Wallace and Case Dillard are decent actors, but the direction by Richard Eyre of the book by Julian Fellowes doesn't provide the necessary chemistry of an unspoken bond. More importantly, the stiffer presentation of this Mary (you can't imagine her winking at the children) limits the fondness we need to feel between the children (Marissa Ackerman and Zach Timson) and this epitome of nanniness.
One interesting change, and loss, is that the children's mother, Winifred Banks (Elizabeth Broadhurst), is no longer a suffragette. Instead of that ingenious, succinct representation of spunk and determination, she is a former actress who gave up her career when she married. Such a change was inevitable, since George Banks (Michael Dean Morgan) has been puffed up as the family tyrant. In turn, he is bossed around by the chairman of the bank and his minions, who clump in a gaggle and sing "Precision and Order" to keep him on his toes.
That song is followed by an interesting juxtaposition: Banks singing the thoughtful "A Man Has Dreams" interspersed with Bert reprising snatches of the cheerful Poppins anthem "A Spoonful of Sugar."
All is not such sweetness and light. The Mary Poppins lesson song "Temper, Temper (Playing the Game)" is accompanied by the children's toys coming to life threateningly. No wonder the original West End production didn't allow children under three to attend.