By Philip Pearce
MRS P.L. TRAVERS didn’t like what Walt Disney did to Mary Poppins. She insisted, as you’ll know if you saw film sequel, Saving Mr. Banks, that Disney took a leading character who was surreal and starchy and made her tuneful and cute. And I suppose Mrs. Travers had a point. She had, after all, created an unforgettable spit-spot British nanny/magician between the covers of some very popular children’s books of the 1930s and 1940s.
A lot of the humor of these books lies in the way the redoubtable Poppins takes two bored suburban London kids on some incredible adventures all of which she coolly accepts as the most ordinary of everyday events. To Mary Poppins, a laughing-gas tea party with your head brushing against the ceiling is as normal as cocoa and digestive biscuits at bedtime. But in the Disney movie and the stage musical it spawned, Poppins can’t remain cool and detached when big things happen. When she and the Banks children, Jane and Michael, visit a public park word factory or dance with chimney sweeps on a rooftop, Mary has to lead an accompanying production number where she out-sings and out-dances everyone else on the soundstage.
Never mind. It’s the same kind of metamorphosis Disney practiced on Mowgli and Alice. And it makes for big, splashy, satisfying family entertainment.
The Pacific Rep version that just opened at the Golden Bough is, in the words of one of its high-flying heroine’s songs, “Practically Perfect.”
I’m now going to climb way out on a limb and say that Gracie Navaille is the most convincing Mary Poppins I’ve seen on stage or screen, and, yes, I’m including Julie Andrews. For starters, Navaille has a pencil-thin figure and sports faultless nursery couture that physically mirror those of the character in the books. But more than that, even when she leads those big musical numbers, sings beautifully and dances perfectly, she somehow does it in a way that still suggests you wouldn’t want to cross swords with this other-worldly lady in any conflict, physical or psychological.
Julian Fellowes’ script cleverly uses Bert, Mary Poppins’ chimney sweep buddy, as a narrator/commentator. Rhett Wheeler is delightful in the role, appropriately jocular, charming and reflective as the words and music of “Chim-chim Cheree” point up sometimes wistful, sometimes funny turning points in the story. He’s got a fine voice and he’s adept and athletic in the raucous toe-tapping numbers like “Step in Time.”
Maddie Mizgorski and Samantha Scattini, who played the Banks children at the Sunday matinee I attended, are pure bliss. It’s a pleasure to hear them sing and they dance with the best of the gifted oldsters. They have a clear grasp of Jane and Michael and know how to project their dialogue and shape a convincing pair of appealing characters.
The cast have a flair for a big lot of complex and varied dance routines choreographed by Devin Adler, who himself appears in several dance numbers, and Pamela Crane, who doesn’t.
Song and dance actually erupt in so many generous helpings that the music might overpower the purely narrative moments in a production less bright and balanced than this one. Fortunately, Susanne Burns keeps the story sequences brisk and pointed. She’s ably helped by performers like Scott McQuiston, who never once allows his formidable gifts as a farceur to slide unchecked into a touching portrayal of Jane’s and Michael’s stuffy London city banker papa, George Banks. In the role of his devoted wife Winifred, Katie Day offers an appealing picture of a thwarted Edwardian housewife. Trained in the theatre, she yearns for a breath of freedom from the husband she manages to love even as he ties her tighter and tighter to the parlor, the pantry and the nursery. She is touching in a musical account of the struggles involved in just “Being Mrs. Banks.”
I wish I could name and praise everyone in a big, slickly trained cast. But the prize for on-the-spot versatility and exciting costume changes must surely go to the delightful Donna Federico. She first appears as a statue of Queen Victoria coming to life in a sudden puff of Bert and Mary magic. We then meet her as a ragged little old lady urging passersby to “Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag.” Then, startling and unforgettable, she explodes into Act 2 as a rasping, demonic replacement for the temporarily absent Mary Poppins, her unvarying nursery medical elixir “Brimstone and Treacle” contrasting darkly with Mary’s Spoonful of Sugar that makes the Medicine go down.
The show is a treat visually. Patrick McEvoy uses projections that not only form a striking backdrop to each London setting but transition deftly from one scene to the next as if by a cinematic dissolve.
It’s a family-friendly show not to be missed. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2, until July 24th.