Emily Marsilia (Mary Poppins), Stoli Wolfgang (Jane Banks) & Kalen Ramirez (Michael Banks)
By Philip Pearce
CABRILLO STAGE’S exciting new production of Mary Poppins is subtitled “The Broadway Musical.” You read it everywhere. It’s all over the program and on all the lobby posters and the promotional material.
It’s a persistent tag that presumably points to the kinds of big, eye-catching, spectacular musical numbers that any self-respecting Broadway show offers and this one has lots of them. Director/choreographer Janie Scott and her energetic cast come up with some glorious song and dance numbers. There are special effects that had Friday’s opening night audience gasping with pleasure. The prim and irrepressible nanny heroine flies away—twice, and her chimney sweep/ artist friend Bert hits an athletic high point as he walks effortlessly up one wall of the proscenium arch and then strolls casually upside down across its top. Hard to beat that as a crowd-pleaser.
Musically, there are a lot of the familiar favorites from the 1964 Disney film. Mary Poppins makes sure that Spoonful of Sugar still helps the medicine go down with the Banks children, Jane and Michael. With characteristic Poppins briskness, she leads an enthusiastic ensemble through all those Supercalifragilistic lyrics. “Jolly Holiday” is all bounce and hilarity and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is a riot of color with vacationing couples flying kites all over the auditorium. Mindy Pedlar has an appealing few moments with the Bird Woman singing “Feed the Birds.” And my favorite number is “Step in Time,” with Mary’s sidewalk artist friend Bert leading a stage full of his fellow chimney sweeps in a show-stopping mass tap number.
I’m probably too firmly stuck back in the sixties, but the new numbers added for this Broadway stage version didn’t seem to me to measure up to the older material. There’s a fair to middling sequence where the magical Mary brings to life and out of their boxes, à la Toy Story, some dolls and soldiers and stuffed animals from the Banks children’s toy collections. I kept wondering why she wanted the kids to retrogress to their infant days, but maybe I missed a plot point. More successful is the appearance of Miss Andrew, a “holy terror” replacement for the departed Mary Poppins, missing from the movie but taken from one of the books. Played with chilling contralto intensity by Lindsey Chester, she launches Act 2 with a terrifying description of her sadistic child-minding techniques in a ballad called “Brimstone and Treacle.”
“Broadway Musical” means it’s going to be the musical numbers which are the big winners. But the words may also be a kind of warning to anyone stuck too firmly not in the sixties but further back in those children’s books written by PL Travers starting in 1935. They are about Jane and Michael, whereas this show is really about their father Mr. Banks (Geoffrey Ward) making a successful bank loan. The books tell how the unsettlingly self-assured magical Mary Poppins takes the kids on a series of visits to people as quirky and unpredictable as Mary Poppins herself. Many of these familiar characters are back in the Broadway script, but where their fiction adventures were weird and intimate, here they’re stretched out, broadened and simplified. It’s nobody’s fault. Big color, big sound, broad acting spells Broadway. But we’re watching something louder, more predictable and more obvious than the original stories.
Emphasis on sure-fire musical numbers is sometimes bought at the expense of plot and character development. Which is not to say that Emily Marsilia isn’t impressively starchy and determined as Mary Poppins. Or that Stoli Wolfgang and Kalen Ramirez as Jane and Michael Banks aren’t an enchanting pair of believable West London youngsters. And in one particular way, this production is an exact opposite of the Disney movie. There, Dick Van Dyke became famous for a portrayal of Bert which verged on overacted exaggeration and set British teeth on edge with a painfully inept Cockney accent. At Cabrillo, Griffeth Whitehurst offers a Bert who managed to be appealing, intimate and nuanced even as far back as my seat in Row U just under the sound booth. And, in a cast where everyone tries, some with more success than others, to sound convincingly English, Whitehurst talks as if he just stepped blithely in off the sidewalks of East London.
It’s a remarkable performance in a big, splashy, and ultimately enjoyable show. In the tradition of Broadway. It plays in repertory with Schoolhouse Rock! until August 16th.