Not your grandma’s ‘Mary Poppins’

Local Life March 31, 2011 0 Comments

Not your grandma’s ‘Mary Poppins’

By Clark Groome

This image of "Mary Poppins," from the classic 1964 movie with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, is what most oldies remember. They may be disappointed in the current stage version playing at the Academy of Music.

Mary Poppins, shortly after arriving at the Bank’s residence at 17 Cherry Lane in London, sings that she is “Practically Perfect.” Damned if she isn’t. The 1964 movie that starred the inestimable Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke was practically perfect, too. All the reports from London and New York about the stage version of the P.L. Travers stories about the world’s greatest nanny were ecstatic.

Alas, the touring company that’s at the Academy of Music through April 17 is nowhere near perfection. For reasons unfathomable, the touring production for the most part lacked energy and any of the humanity that is so critical to the stories and that wonderful film.

The show is different from the movie in several ways. Some plot elements are missing; some new ones have been added. Some of the songs (by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) are missing; some new ones (by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) have been added.

That’s all well and good. Theater has different capabilities than film. And as noted, the original London and Broadway productions of “Mary Poppins” were greeted with popular and critical acclaim.

Part of the problem, at least on the opening night, was due to a technical production that didn’t seem to be totally under control. Light cues seemed out of sync and the sound system wasn’t always in tiptop shape.

More than anything, it was the cast in Richard Eyre’s production that seemed to be on automatic pilot. Steffanie Leigh made a pleasant Mary, if not one I would describe as “practically perfect in every way.”

The two children on opening night were either victims of poor diction or the dicey sound system. They were almost impossible to understand in the early going but did improve as the evening went on.

Most of the rest of the company — with the notable exception of Nicolas Dromard’s Bert (the Van Dyke role in the movie), who was just terrific — seemed to be on autopilot. There were a couple of boffo production numbers, choreographed by Matthew Bourne: “Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious” in Act I and “Step in Time” in Act II. The problem is they came out of a lethargic show and gave us a hint of what the whole affair could be but wasn’t.

Technically this is a complicated show. Kites, Bert and Mary all fly. Sets change dozens of times. Bob Crwoley’s sets and costumes are impressive and practically the most memorable element — besides the great songs — of the show.

The show is well sung, but that can’t make up for the show’s plastic performances. Too bad. There are so many elements that could make this — and apparently do so elsewhere — as impressive as the original stories and the movie on which it is based.

For tickets to the national touring company production of “Mary Poppins,” playing through April 17 at the Academy of Music as part of the Kimmel Center’s Broadway Season, call 215-733-3333 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway

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