“Mary Poppins” a bumpy musical flight of fantasy

Some soaring moments, plus predictable albeit charming fantasy

By Lucy Komisar

Brandishing sticks topped with round brushes, the chimney sweeps do a tap dance atop a London row house, and audience spirits rise as high as that roof. When life-size toys in opera voices menace children who‘ve thrown a temper tantrum, one again sees vintage Matthew Bourne, co-director and co-choreographer of “Mary Poppins,” the new musical on Broadway. Alas, most of the production numbers don‘t reach those heights. (The co-choreographer is Stephen Mear.)

Not to say they aren‘t engaging. A dull park turns bright green with painted flowers. Statues come to life and dance (more Bourne). And officious bank officials in black morning coats bob and weave against a backdrop of columns and domed ceiling. That is all fine for Broadway, just not what we‘ve come to expect of subtly witty Bourne. Think entertainment, not artistry.

For most of “Mary Poppins,” about a nanny who flies through the air clutching a carpet bag and an umbrella, the feeling is definitely earth-bound. Though Ashley Brown, who has a lilting soprano, makes several levitating journeys, one as far as the second balcony, her Mary Poppins never quite takes off. Or gets beyond her cardboard cutout personality.

The story, to remind those who haven‘t read it for years, concerns the stiff authoritarian banker, George Banks (Daniel Jenkins), who believes in precision, order and efficiency, a standard he applies to his family. When his wife (Rebecca Luker) says, “The kids want to say goodnight,” he replies, “Tell them you‘ve given me the message.” The kids‘ unhappiness turns to rebellion. They take out their angst on governesses, but meet their match, or their salvation, in Mary Poppins, who thinks that sugar is the best medicine.

The play is based on the movie version of the 1934 story by Australian feminist columnist and former actress, Pamela Lyndon Travers. She set it in the Depression, but the 1964 film by Disney – a rabid right-winger — moved it to 1910 Edwardian England. Travers didn‘t like the film. She started work on a darker sequel, but died in 1996 at the age of 96. While she probably would not like this version either, at least Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book, sought to make the show politically relevant.

Father is worried about losing his job at the bank because he chose to give a loan to an earnest fellow (Matt Loehr), who wants to expand a factory to provide jobs, instead of to a hustler, the aptly named Von Hussler (Seam McCourt), who is touting a scheme to make money from money. Considering how banking really works, that decision is the biggest fantasy in the show. The bank scene dance number is a high spot.

Mother, who has given up an acting career for marriage, is unappreciated by her husband and bored with a life that includes organizing tea parties for rich ladies who don‘t show up. She sings about “Being Mrs. Banks.” A Betty Friedan moment. Jenkins and Luker give pleasing professional performances.

But the direction by Bourne and Richard Eyre plays down the darkness in favor of Disney fluff and shelves of dishes that collapse and straighten up. We are left wondering at the significance of the ragged woman who begs pennies to feed the birds at the steps of St Paul‘s Cathedral. Mary urges the children to give her some coins, but there‘s no word about poverty. Partly out of the failure to take on such issues, the plot is weak. Janelle Anne Robinson is high-spirited and appealing as the West Indian candy lady, but we don‘t get an inkling of why West Indians are in England. The musical numbers eschew substance and seem added on rather than intrinsic.

Still, kids and many adults will enjoy the fantasy. There are some entrancing performances, especially by Gavin Lee as Bert, Mary‘s charming lanky Cockney chimney sweep beau. There are fine portrayals by Jane Carr, who trills along as Mrs. Brill, the family‘s Cockney maid, and Ruth Gottschall, Miss Andrew, the monstrous nanny. The children — Katherine Leigh Doherty as Jane and Matthew Gumley as Michael in the performance I saw – are talented and engaging.

Kudos go to set and costume designer Bob Crowley, who provides gorgeous backdrops. But in this production, the “game” goes to Disney, not Travers.

“Mary Poppins.” Book by Julian Fellowes. Music & Lyrics by Richard & Robert Sherman. Additional Material by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe. Directed by

Richard Eyre & Matthew Bourne. Choreographed by Matthew Bourne & Stephen Mear. Starring Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee, Daniel Jenkins, Rebecca Luker, Jane Carr, Mark Price, Cass Morgan, Ruth Gottschall, Michael McCarty, Katherine Doherty, Delaney Moro, Henry Hodges, Alexander Scheitinger. Sets & Costumes by Bob Crowley.

New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 West 42 St. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat. Running time: 2:40. $20-$110. 212-307-4747. http://disney.go.com/theatre/marypoppins/index.html

Photos 1-3 by Joan Marcus. Photo 4 by Alastair Muir. Photo 5 from show website video. Photo 6 by Michael Le Poer Trench.

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