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April 27, 2012

'Mary Poppins' makes a pleasant landing at the Hippodrome

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

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome
        

Comments

Annoyingly, my opening night annual subscription seat was moved to the Thurs. matinee for this show (really hate this change, due to the 1 wk vs. 2 wk schedules). I completely agree with your take on the show and the individual actors.

At the Thurs. matinee, Ms Wallace was outstanding in the 1st act, but shortly into the 2nd act, the whole show came to an awkward stop, with the Banks characters simply walking offstage as the curtain dropped. An announcement was made about "difficulties" and after about 15 minutes, the show continued with the understudy for Ms. Wallace taking over the Poppins role. A credit to the professionalism of the u/s as the show continued seamlessly without the new actress missing a (noticeable) step or word - difficult to do in such a sudden circumstance vs. knowing in advance the principal was ill, etc. Kudos to Lindsey Bliven for her 'show must go on' performance!

Any ideas or knowledge of what took place?

I did notice that Miss Wallace sounded like she had a cold on Wednesday, but it barely affected her singing, and she didn't reveal the slightest sign of physical weakness. Perhaps she pushed herself too much that night. I hope she recovers, but I'm glad to hear that she has a fine understudy in the wings. TIM

For me, the chimney sweeps' tap number is the highlight of the whole production and makes the rest of the show worth sitting through. And, I agree, the staging is rather magical.

I, too, was at the thursday show, and my children and I would like to know what happened to Mary Poppins!

My daughter Bridgette treated me to the Mary Poppins show for my b-day. We had front row seats and we thoroughly enjoyed it! Rachel Wallace was outstanding as Mary Poppins and all the rest of the cast who performed in the April 29 matinee were fantastic as well. Their voices were spectacular and their dancing was phenominal! THANK YOU cast of Mary Poppins for such a stellar performance and for the wonderful childhood memories! WE WISH YOU CONTINUED SUCCESS IN THE FUTURE AND THANKS FOR PUTTING A SMILE ON OUR FACES!!!
Sincerely, Camilla and Bridgette
P.S. supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

I heard that Mary Poppins left the stage on Thursday because she had to sneak off and meet the Von Trappe family and get to the Swiss border.

Although the main trio normally performs in harmony, there are some side-splitting skits that involve one of the three organism just slightly out of sync with the others.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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