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Practically Perfect! ‘Mary Poppins’ is the best show so far this year

Visually, “Mary Poppins” is exceptional and achieves exactly what theatre should: spectacle, awe and transformation of self to another time and place.

mary poppins
MERRY CAST, MERRY TUNES: (l. to r., back row) Jason Aycock (Bert), Dru Loman (Robertson Ay), Heather Setzler (Mary Poppins), Robin Dale Robertson (George Banks), Shannon Playl (Winifred Banks), Debra Gillingham (Miss Andrew); (l. to r., front row) Michelle Reiff (Mrs. Brill), Camille Knab (Jane Banks) and Abel Zukerman (Michael Banks). Courtesy photo.
mary poppins

MERRY CAST, MERRY TUNES: (l. to r., back row) Jason Aycock (Bert), Dru Loman (Robertson Ay), Heather Setzler (Mary Poppins), Robin Dale Robertson (George Banks), Shannon Playl (Winifred Banks), Debra Gillingham (Miss Andrew); (l. to r., front row) Michelle Reiff (Mrs. Brill), Camille Knab (Jane Banks) and Abel Zukerman (Michael Banks). Courtesy photo.

In 1934 P.L. Travers introduced the world to Mary Poppins—the most enduring and beloved English nanny the Western world knows. In 1964 Walt Disney produced the definitive film adaptation starring Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke as Bert—the kindly neighborhood odd-job man. Successive generations of children have grown up with that movie and shared it with their children, making it one of the greatest family classics. In 2004 Disney and Cameron Mackintosh (“Cats,” “Les Mis,” “Phantom of the Opera”) opened a stage musical of “Mary Poppins” in London. The highly anticipated show has now come to Wilmington at Thalian Hall courtesy of Opera House Theatre Company.

At the start, we meet Jane (Camille Knab) and Michael Banks (Abel Zuckerman), two young children in Edwardian England who routinely drive off their nannies in what a post-Freudian armchair psychoanalyst would recognize as continual cries for their parents’ attention. After successfully ridding the house of yet another nanny they dislike, they hand their parents their requirements for a new nanny.

“The Perfect Nanny” is a charming song about their desires for someone who will play games with them, love them and pet them. Here, we begin to see Jane and Michael as something other than the hoodlums they have thus far been. Zuckerman especially is desperate to win some sort of praise for their efforts. Little can they guess what is in store for them with the arrival of Mary Poppins (Heather Setzler) just moments later.

This stage show is not the film; thus, it’s not the scene showing nannies lined up around the block with the wind blowing them all away for Mary Poppins’ arrival. She is just suddenly there where she wasn’t before. Now, how can anyone compare with Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins? Let me tell you: Heather Setzler is a phenomenal Mary Poppins! She is prim, proper and takes no nonsense, but she is still incredibly charming and likeable—so much so everyone wants to please her. As she is quick to tell us in her first song, she is “Practically Perfect.”

Even the local odd-job man-cum-chimney sweep, Bert (Jason Aycock), wants her approval. (But then, what sidekick doesn’t?) Aycock’s Bert is different from Dick Van Dyke’s, but somehow a little more earthy. I believed this Bert actually has known hunger, and somewhere he did something right because, now, in an odd way, he’s watching out for these kids when Mary Poppins can’t.  If I were 7, I would want Bert to be my best friend; I bet you would, too.

Audiences need to prepare for the famed park scene. The animated penguins would be nearly impossible to do onstage (not completely, but it would be a challenge). For the stage musical, a lovely interlude from the book has been adapted so that the children who are in bright color dance and sing with live statues in the park—all of whom are costumed in gray, black and white to look like stone. Jane and Michael’s first excursion with Mary Poppins and Bert leads them to a the talking statue, Neleus (Blaine Allen Mower), to open “Jolly Holiday.” It’s a wonderful replacement for the animation scene, and it truly shows off all the performers but Mower especially.

In addition, rather than going to the race track with the carousel horses, they visit Mrs. Corry (Chandler Davis), a psychedelic Edwardian-era carnie with a voice like Mrs. Cleo from those famed psychic commercials from the ‘90s. In her amazing storefront, filled with wares, words, conversations, and ginger stars, we get a fabulous rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The choreography will blow you away; it is mind-bendingly amazing. It is only eclipsed by the incredible tap-dance number, “Step in Time,” the Chimney sweep anthem of Act 2.

One of the differences between the stage show and the film is that the stage show puts much more emphasis on Mr. Banks (Robin Dale Robertson) and his young wife (Shannon Playl): their strugglea as a couple and parents. “Being Mrs. Banks,” Plyal’s soliloquy about her current confusion and struggles, becomes a sympathetic and haunting piece due to her beautiful voice. In “A Man Has Dreams” we see the softer, reflective, confused side of Mr. Banks. His growth in the show is pretty remarkable. I haven’t seen Robertson have this much fun onstage in years. He clearly loves the material, the growth of his character and his co-conspirators onstage. It is infectious.

Add in the laugh-inducing antics of Michelle Rieff and Dru Loman as his less-than capable domestic staff and the characters of the neighborhood, Admiral Boom (Bill Piper), the park keeper (George Domby), and Miss Lark (Denyse McDonnell) and her dog, and it’s a perfect recipe for endearing good-natured humor.    

Yes, the bird woman is still in the show, played by Fran Keenan Tabor, and if she doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you are made of steel. But what is more lovely than her rendition of the song is watching her teach Michael how to feed the birds. Zuckerman’s sweet-natured take on Michael Banks and his internalizing of Mary Poppins’ lessons is really wonderful to watch.

With stage shows that have famous film counter parts (“Sound of Music,” “Oklahoma!,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” etc.), the inevitable issue is often how the audience expects to see a faithful and perfect reproduction of the film onstage. That is impossible—no one sings like Julie Andrews or could possibly live up to Gene Kelly. Part of what makes the script for the “Mary Poppins” stage musical so wonderful and accessible is that it has many of the elements from the film that we know, love and yearn for, but it also veers into the books and tells a story closer to P. L. Travers’ material. That lets the audience fall in love with the character and story in a different way, instead of only seeing the disparity from what they remember of the movie.

This production, like its title character, is practically perfect in every way. It’s only fault is in Mary Poppins’ flying sequences. All the suspension of disbelief that has welled up with the magic of this show just fizzles with her on the genie lift. Other than that, it is phenomenal. Moment after moment is a reveal, with lovely, beautiful mind-bending scenery by Terry Collins painted with Kodachrome-saturated color by Dallas LaFon’s lighting. Visually it is exceptional and achieves exactly what theatre should: spectacle, awe and transformation of self to another time and place.

Juli Harvey truly outdid herself with costuming a cast of almost 40 for a show of this scale. The production team, including musical director Lorene Walsh and her 10-piece orchestra have taken this show over the top.  It is far and away my favorite show yet this year. If you are going to pick something to take a child to go see—to ignite an excitement about theatre—this is it.

DETAILS:

Mary Poppins

4  1/2  stars (out of 5)

Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.

Fri., June 19 – Sun. June 21

Fri., June 25 – Sun., June 28

Tickets: $29 • www.thalianhall.org

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