It easy to wish for more from “Mary Poppins,” the hard-working musical that has landed at the Hippodrome — a more layered story, more fleshed-out characters, more sparkling dialogue, more imaginative songs.
Then again, it’s easy to see what has kept the show running on Broadway for six years and has kept a national touting production racking up the miles and the audiences for three (two million theater-goers served in more than 30 cities so far).
For one thing, “Mary Poppins,” created in the 1930s by Australian novelist P. L. Travers, continues to be a beloved character with kids, not to mention adults who retain fond memories of childhood.
There is a lot of appeal in ...
the original stories about the uber-nanny who pops in providentially from the sky to solve any number of problems faced by mortal families and transform the lives of the young ones in her care.
Those stories helped to inspire the musical, but the most obvious influence is the popular 1964 Disney film musical, the one that astonishingly earned Julie Andrews an Academy Award (everyone knows Debbie Reynolds gave a superior performance in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown").
Songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman from the cinematic "Mary Poppins" are retained in the musical, in some cases expanded upon by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who also contributed new ones to the score.
Striking so many familiar notes, the show has a built-in advantage. Add in the imprimatur of co-producers Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, not to mention a clever scenic design full of whimsy, and you’re talking box office magnet.
So what’s not to like? Well, the plot never quite takes flight as easily as Mary does. Or as easily as she should — in the version at the Hippodrome, there isn’t much magic when Mary gets hauled aloft, and, worse (spoiler alert!), she doesn’t get to make one of the truly great theatrical exits, as she does on Broadway and did when the touring production played the Kennedy Center in 2010.
The first time I saw the show, in Washington, it struck me as super-cali-ficial, and that hasn’t changed. The serviceable music doesn’t provide much compensation (by the hundredth or so reprise, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” starts to grate big time.)
The plot revolves around the home of George and Winifred Banks. The husband is too absorbed by his bank job to notice his spouse or offspring; the wife struggles to hold things together and to be taken seriously; their two kids are smug and unruly, but really just want a hug from daddy.
Enter a perpetually unruffled woman with an umbrella and a penchant for dispensing obvious lessons in child-rearing, growing up, saving marriages, being true to your dreams and, of course, keeping a supply of sucrose handy to help the tough things in life go down.
The process of getting everybody and everything straightened involves few surprises or insights as the show whirls from incident to incident and introduces an assortment of fringe characters. It just never takes enough time to make any one good point in a solid way. Things stay, well, sugary.
But the show never stops trying to entertain the eye and the ear, which does help wear down resistance. And the cast at the Hippodrome is so eminently likable that you have little trouble surrendering.
In the role of the “practically perfect” Poppins, Rachel Wallace manages to bring out genuine warmth beneath the businesslike concentration, creating enough of an aura that you can buy the idea of the Banks children becoming smitten and responsive. (She far outshines Caroline Sheen, who seemed so robotic in the show’s Kennedy Center visit.)
Wallace can also sing with a good deal of finesse and expressive coloring.
As Bert, the amiable, knowing chimney-sweep and budding artist who serves as a bit of a tour guide for the audience, Case Dillard provides abundant charm, without ever getting sticky.
There’s an ingratiating naturalness to his performance, even when he does his startling upside-down and side-ways dance around the proscenium — the greatest inspiration in Matthew Bourne’s choreography.
Michael Dean Morgan does a telling job with both the severe and softer sides of George. Elizabeth Broadhurst makes an endearing Winifred, a woman who knows that “all the best people have nannies,” but who can’t stop being a mother.
Tregoney Shepherd is terrific as Mrs. Brill, the Banks’ harried cook. With her lilting accent and suffer-no-fools manner, she makes the character a delectably close cousin to the cook played by Lesley Nicol on the TV hit “Downton Abbey” (created by Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book for “Mary Poppins”).
Cherish Myers and Zach Timson make an effective pair as the Banks kids (they alternate performances with another pair of young actors).
Q. Smith, a vivid actress with a singing voice of exceptional range and tonal richness, nearly walks off with the show in her dual assignment. She’s touching as the Bird Woman and quite the scenery-chewer as Miss Andrew, the nanny from hell who left a lasting mark on a young George Banks.
The rest of the well-polished ensemble proves engaging. Their all-out delivery of “Step in Time,” the main contender for showstopper status, is especially impressive.
The original set design by Bob Crowler, even if economized a bit for the touring version, still delivers.
The fluid scene-changes, especially the one that turns a bland park into a prismatic wonderland, continue to delight. Same for the cool shift of visual perspective for the bank scenes, where we learn that money is not the most important thing in the world, except when it is (the script offers a little something to both the one-percenters and the 99).
A spoonful of substance wouldn’t hurt “Mary Poppins,” but maybe a sugar rush is enough reward.
The show runs through May 6 at the Hippodrome.
PHOTOS BY DEEN VAN MEER