July 15, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
A familiar song and dance with Mary Poppins

The national touring production of the Broadway hit “Mary Poppins” has come to the Kennedy Center. Based on the Disney film that vaulted Julie Andrews to Hollywood stardom in the title role and the classic children stories by P.L. Travers, the musical possesses moments of sheer delight — full of familiar songs and energetic dance, but at times can be lumbering and feel a bit flat.

Played by Caroline Sheen, Mary Poppins is part white witch, part family therapist. With a fixed smile and a slightly smug, can-do attitude, she rather magically appears on the scene at the Banks’ unhappy London home (charmingly rendered in somber tones by Bob Crowley), assuming the role of minder to the family’s two unruly children.

Mary Poppins floats up staircases and occasionally camps it up aping the moves of a femme fatale; but despite her precisely executed antics, she is overshadowed by her employer’s sad story (adapted for today’s audiences by Julian Fellowes): Mrs. Banks (Blythe Wilson) is a former actress rather unsuccessfully adjusting to life as her husband’s wife. Social climbing Mr. Banks (Laird Mackintosh), we learn, is unable to relate to his young children as a result of his own loveless childhood inhabited by distant parents and a monstrous nanny. The children — Jane and Michael (played marvelously on press night by Bailey Grey and Carter Thomas, respectively) aren’t brats — they’re simply acting out. The new nanny will make things right.

A servant in charge isn’t terribly Edwardian England, but neither is Mary Poppins. While she doesn’t strive to overturn Britain’s rigid caste system, the nanny doesn’t particularly subscribe to it herself. Unlike her cheerful chimney sweep pal Bert (a rubber-legged Gavin Lee) her accent isn’t the least Cockney. She comes and goes from jobs as she pleases, and isn’t terribly concerned about money. She defers to no one.

Produced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh and staged by Richard Eyre, “Mary Poppins” boasts a big diverse cast and even bigger splashy musical numbers. “Jolly Holiday” features well-built statues stepping down from their pedestals and frolicking in the park with Mary Poppins, Bert and the kids. In the big dance sequence “Step in Time,” Bert literally taps up, across, and down the Opera House’s proscenium arch.

Certainly, almost everyone can appreciate the show’s instantly recognizable songs from the movie score by the Academy Award-winning Sherman brothers including “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have added additional lyrics and music to the originals, and also contributed seven compatible and fairly memorable new tunes of their own to the show.

Among the new songs are “Practically Perfect,” a zippy paean to Mary Poppins’ many superior qualities, and “Brimstone and Treacle,” a bombastic ode to the harsher methods of child rearing sung by Miss Andrew (Ellen Harvey), the scary nanny from Mr. Banks’ youth.

When Mary Poppins finally makes her exit, open umbrella in hand, rising rather spectacularly from the stage, above the orchestra seating, and up through the air to the cavernous theater’s mezzanine, you’re not too sorry to see her go. After all, the show runs nearly three hours; and equally important, you understand that just like TV’s “Super Nanny,” Mary Poppins’ aim is to fix families, staying “until the wind changes” and then it’s off to the next gig.

‘Mary Poppins’
Through Aug. 22
Kennedy Center Opera House
$35-$135
202-467-4600
www.kennedy-center.org

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