This evening I was fortunate to see Disney's excellent touring stage production of MARY POPPINS at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
MARY POPPINS is particularly special to me, as it's the first film I ever saw in a movie theater. (For the record, it was the Crest Theatre in Long Beach, California.) I was barely three years old but the experience made a huge impression, starting me on the path to a lifelong love of movies, musicals, Disney, and Julie Andrews.
P.L. Travers, I was intrigued that the Broadway MARY POPPINS is a slightly different telling of the story, incorporating a bit more of the sometimes dark and mysterious mood of the Travers books. However, it's worth noting that the stage Mary Poppins remains the tart but much nicer Mary of the film version. Those who have read Travers know what the Mary of the books was like; she was most certainly not the Julie Andrews version. As much as I love the books, I prefer the less scary Mary of stage or screen!
The script by Julian Fellowes (THE YOUNG VICTORIA) is on the whole quite good and an interesting reworking which helps give the stage production a distinct identity from the film. Mrs. Corry, the candy seller of the books, appears in this version, as does Robertson Ay; the script also utilizes the character names Miss Andrew and Valentine from the books, but they are quite different in the stage production. Miss Andrew, however, still has a lark! (When I was little I loved Travers' cleverness creating Miss Lark's Andrew and Miss Andrew's Lark. And the book's story of Valentine, Jane, and the broken plate literally gave me nightmares.) The stage production story is not quite as cohesive as that of the film, being closer to a montage of experiences, set over a longer period of time; Mary even goes away at intermission, and then, as the book title says, "Mary Poppins comes back."
Having seen touring productions of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and MY FAIR LADY with bafflingly thin-voiced sopranos who had trouble staying in key while hitting the high notes, what a thrill to enjoy Steffanie Leigh in the title role. Like the character she plays, Leigh was "practically perfect in every way." She has a strong, full-bodied voice which confidently sailed all over the scale.
Leigh has stage presence and personality to spare, which is particularly important in such a role; when she enters, she takes command of the stage. I watched her first scenes with opera glasses and was also impressed with the more subtle shadings in her character in evidence when watching her more closely. Every bit of body language is thought out and followed through, whether it's constantly standing with her feet pointing outward or the dramatic turn she makes each time she ascends the stairs to the nursery. (There's also a wonderful moment where she slides up the bannister, just as in the film.) The body language isn't simply done for show; it's a part of Leigh fully inhabiting the character.
Nicolas Dromard was also excellent as Bert. I liked how the character was used not only to help narrate but to effect the scene changes. He had an excellent singing voice, and I particularly enjoyed his duet with Mr. Banks, "A Man Has Dreams" and "A Spoonful of Sugar," which is also one of the more touching scenes in the film. Dromard is also quite a dancer, and during "Step in Time" he gets to make like Fred Astaire in ROYAL WEDDING, dancing up the side of the proscenium, then tap dancing upside down before dancing his way down the other side of the proscenium. It was quite impressive.
The supporting cast members were all very good, including the children playing Jane and Michael. (I'm not completely certain of the names; different children rotate in the parts.) I'll be honest sharing that I found the "colorblind" casting slightly distracting, as Queen Victoria and an Edwardian nanny, Miss Andrew, could not have been a black woman; that's simply historical reality. The casting lessened the show's very effective Edwardian mood a bit, although the actress, Q. Smith, was an extremely talented singer. However, the entire story is a fantasy anyway, so I guess on that level one could say it works.
The new songs, by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, served their purpose dramatically but frankly are completely unmemorable, paling alongside the melodies and emotional pull of "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Feed the Birds," and "Let's Go Fly a Kite." I was disappointed that the big song and dance finale was set to a new song, "Anything Can Happen," rather than a Sherman Brothers song.
However, the magical final scene incorporated an instrumental version of "Let's Go Fly a Kite," and it left me quite satisfied, especially as it was a truly spine-tingling moment; Mary slowly sailed out over the audience and up to the very top of the theater, where she disappeared into darkness as the audience gasped and applauded. I've never seen anything like it, and it was worth the price of admission!
As with a production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST seen at Segerstrom last November, the sound left something to be desired, particularly in the earliest scenes. Dialogue was a bit muffled, though it seemed to become easier to understand as the show went on. Especially in the early scenes, I was glad I already knew the lyrics and some of the bits of dialogue. The sound was absolutely crystal clear in the two performances I saw of SOUTH PACIFIC last fall, so I'm not sure what accounts for the different sound quality in the same venue.
The set design was excellent, far above the fairly lame sets used in the low-rent version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST which played here last Thankgiving. At first I was a bit dubious about the Cherry Tree Lane set, as it looked a little too close to a worn civic light opera rental, but as the show went on I warmed up to it.
The rest of the set design was truly excellent, particularly the intimidating bank interior, the park, St. Paul's, and the "rooftops of London." Special effects were also outstanding; in addition to the flying and dancing moments mentioned above, there were a number of other really well-done bits of magic.
For more on the show, here's a thumbs up from the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and an additional review from the Orange County Register.
All in all, a very worthwhile and interesting show which I'm glad to have experienced.
Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady; Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 14, 2010); Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 22, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Beauty and the Beast.