Mary Poppins - Academy of Music Review on the Avenue of the Arts

On Friday, March 25, 2011, we attended the Philadelphia opening of the stage version of Mary Poppins at the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust Streets. Here is our review…

A trip to see Mary Poppins at the Academy of Music provides a tremendous opportunity to travel back a century in time (with just a "Step in Time"), as well as 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, to Edwardian London.

The ambience of the Academy of Music- a Victorian grand opera house – is the perfect place to be transformed into a romanticized London, complete with umbrellas, bowler hats, banks (run by solemn aristocratic bankers), St. Paul's Cathedral, Cockney accents, paintings, artwork, books, walks in the park, and statues. But, most importantly- the city is graced with a perfect nanny who can fly, and affable chimney sweeps, "on the rooftops of London", amidst a gray sky.

Just arriving at the Academy produces that effect, as does the virtual Mary Poppins title screen up on stage. But the perfect precursor to the show is when the bells of the iconic London landmark Big Ben begin to chime. As the sounds of the pealing bells reverberate throughout the venue, they are signaling the audience that it's time to settle into your seats, and enjoy the spectacle about to unfold upon the Academy stage. The bells of Big Ben reprise their role at intermission, sending audience members scurrying back to their seats for the second act.

We recently screened the original Mary Poppins, the beloved 1964 film by Walt Disney. Although the Walt Disney Company has produced among the best examples of family entertainment on the silver screen in both the 20th and 21st centuries, we concur with the distinguished film critic Leonard Maltin that "Mary Poppins is Walt Disney's masterpiece."

Nearly a half-century after its initial release in 1964, the film is so marvelously entertaining, and it remains the perfect showcase for the considerable talents of both Julie Andrews, the original Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke, the affable happy-go-lucky chimney sweep, as they paint a picture (and Bert's case, both literally and figuratively) of a quaint, innocent London in 1910, during the reign of King Edward VII, prior to the First World War.

The narrative hook is the arrival of the supernaturally talented nanny, at the home of the Banks family. Mr. Banks, as his name implies, is an upper-middle-class banker, with pretensions for climbing even higher socially, within class-bound Britain- that is, moving into the ranks of the aristocracy. The two parents agree that they need a nanny, simply because "all the best families have them."

The Banks family has a cook and a servant, who maintain a very respectable, tastefully furnished home. But the seemingly perfect scene of domestic bliss within the household has a hidden problem – they find it impossible to retain nannies for their two children, Jane and Michael.

Stuck upstairs in the nursery, neglected by their parents, the children express their craving for attention by making life intolerable for any nanny. That is, until the arrival of Mary Poppins, who has remarkable supernatural powers. She immediately strikes a rapport with the children, delighting them with her magic, and many adventures ensue.

Meanwhile, Bert narrates the action, sometimes speaking directly to the audience, and sometimes interacting with Mary Poppins, the Banks family, and other London characters.

We anticipated that the stage version would be virtually identical to the movie, with the added bonus of a live, airborne Mary Poppins, and a plethora of dancing chimney sweeps. However, we were surprised when we read the list of musical numbers in the program, just before the show. The program helpfully noted that there would be some new songs added to the score of the 1964 movie, and that some existing songs would have different lyrics. There is also the addition of a major new character, the "anti-Poppins", so to speak, named "Miss Andrew" (whose name we speculate is a play on Julie Andrews, who brought Mary Poppins to life on the big screen).

Steffanie Leigh, in the title role, delivers a stunning performance, as she is nearly indistinguishable from Julie Andrews. Leigh plays the part with the same lilting voice and complete poise as she goes about taking care of her young charges, moving seamlessly from London into the fantasy world, of which the Banks family is so understandably surprised to discover, right under their noses.

Nicholas Dromond, as Bert, also provides a virtuoso performance, as he admirably fills the enormous shoes of the great comic actor Van Dyke. (In contrast to the similarity between Leigh and Andrews, we were so used to seeing the role played by the much taller Van Dyke, that it was surprising, initially, to see the role played by an actor of average height.)

Although Dromond is stellar throughout the show, the Canadian actor has one great stunt to pull off, which is something you would never imagine you would see live. However, we won't give away the specifics of it, saying only that it is remarkable to see live, and it literally has to be seen to be believed.

We were particularly impressed with the performance of the Banks children, Jane and Michael. These are very demanding roles for youthful actors, as they are in nearly every scene, and there is a great deal of dialogue to remember.

The music is also beautiful. Our favorite is "Chim Chim Cher-ee", a song which is not only exquisitely sentimental, but also very catchy (it will remain your head for days); it is based on an old legend in England that shaking hands with a chimney sweep will bring you luck. For sheer spectacle, the most spectacular number is the rendition of "Step in Time", the showstopper in which it appears that every chimney sweep in London has arrived on stage.

Since "Step in Time" is one of the best scenes in the movie, we eagerly anticipated seeing a performance of the live version. Surprisingly, Mary Poppins was not adapted for the stage and performed for live audiences until 2004, four decades after the movie was released, due to the success of other Disney movie musicals on Broadway, such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.)

The show is punctuated by wondrous sets and special effects. Clearly, it bears the influence of Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, the Phantom of the Opera, etc. The special effects are eye-popping, comparable to anything you would see in a movie. In particular, during the song "Jolly Holiday", the gray London park is vividly transformed in an instant, into brilliant, bright colors, echoing the effect that you see in the movie. Conversely, the arched dome of the London bank seems to be a genuine architectural marvel, making you feel as if you are actually in the presence of Mr. Banks and his distinguished, august superiors of a great financial institution, dripping with gravitas.

The only areas in which we can express disappointment with the stage version, is the removal of some of the minor historical details, which anchored this world firmly in the past. In the original film song "The Life I Lead", which doesn't appear in the stage version, Mr. Banks notes that the year is 1910, King Edward sits on his throne, and all is well with the British Empire. Meanwhile, Mrs. Banks is politically active, seeking to extend the vote to British women, as a suffragette. But on stage, she is not affiliated with suffragettes in London. And one of our favorite lines from the movie did not appear at all on stage. Mr. Banks explains to his banker bosses the history of the Boston Tea Party, over a century earlier in America, with dry British wit. He notes that "the tea was thrown into the harbor, which rendered it unsuitable for drinking – even for Americans."

For 40 years, the film version Mary Poppins has remained popular on both sides of the Atlantic and the stage version represents another evolution of its story. Accordingly, we enthusiastically recommend seeing the live version, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

You can obtain tickets to the Philadelphia run of Mary Poppins, which runs through April 17, 2011, at the Kimmel Center box office, either in person, on the phone or through its website.

Mary Poppins at the Academy of Music – Show Dates and Performances

Tuesday, March 29 – 7:30 PM
Wednesday, March 30, 7:30 PM
Thursday, March 31, 7:30 PM
Friday, April 1, 8 PM
Saturday, April 2, 2 PM matinee, 8 PM evening.
Sunday, April 3, 1 PM matinee, 6:30 PM evening

Tuesday, April 5, 7:30 PM
Wednesday, April 6, 7:30 PM
Thursday, April 7, 7:30 PM
Friday, April 8, 8 PM
Saturday, April 9, 2 PM matinee, 8 PM evening.
Sunday, April 10, 1 PM matinee, 6:30 PM evening

Tuesday, April 12, 7:30 PM
Wednesday, April 13, 7:30 PM
Thursday, April 14, 1 PM matinee, 7:30 PM evening
Friday, April 15, 8 PM
Saturday, April 16, 2 PM matinee, 8 PM evening
Sunday, April 17, 1 PM, matinee closing performance

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