Los Angeles Theater Review: MARY POPPINS (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

by Tony Frankel on July 9, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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MARY’S POPPIN’ OUT ALL OVER

Not just the quintessentially “practically perfect” nanny, Mary Poppins is a kind of cosmic cure. Given the state of our disunion, we probably need to swallow helping and heaping spoonfuls of sugar. Courtesy of Musical Theatre West, Disney’s aggressively buoyant movie musicalization cavorts across the Carpenter Center stage, enchanted by director Daniel Pelzig’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-cheerful tribute to P.J. Travers’ wonder-working Victorian nanny. Resistance is futile. “Let’s go fly a kite.”

Upright to uptight, the desiccated Banks household is the scene of a transformation very similar to what Peter Pan does for the Darling mansion just down the street or what a little girl from India does to a similarly frozen world when she discovers a “secret garden.” She opens up doors, windows and entire rooftops.

In this Cameron Mackintosh/Disney Theatricals stage version, the main departure from the iconic 1964 film has the nanny at one point abandoning Jane and Michael Banks, her chosen children (just as the original Poppins Julie Andrews did to the von Trapp brood in 1965’s The Sound of Music), which only makes the tots feel so much less miserable when she returns (ditto the von Trapp brood). Add a touch of feminism (instead of concentrating on the Suffragette movement, Mrs. Banks is more confused as to how an Edwardian woman is supposed to be a wife [“Being Mr. Banks”]), and you’ve got a pretty potent childhood classic come to love and life.

Replacing a string of bad nannies who have thrown up their hands at the Banks’ bratty kids (Olivia Knox and Travis Burnett-Doering), Mary Poppins (Katherine McDonough, unflappably cheery and almost supernaturally smug) has no references but plenty of pluck. Embarking on a non-stop “Jolly Holiday,” this white witch single-mindedly opens up the stuffy Banks abode to the real world of Cockney chimney sweeps, a magically restored living statue (I might have appreciated a topiary coming to life instead; a grey fig-leafed muscled dancer seems out of place here), happy kite-fliers in a London park, an elderly bird feeder with a heart of gold, and a candy shop proprietress who also sells letters.

This relentlessly good influence inspires Mrs. Banks (Amanda Leigh Jerry is the pre-feminist prototype), a one-time thespian, to become more than a just a hostess. Mary’s implacable rightness induces crusty Mr. Banks (Martin Kildare), a stiff-necked practitioner of precision and order, to finally discover that banks should lend money to good people with excellent ideas, not simply use money to make money. (This, of course, is the most relevant parallel from 1890 to 2017.) A multi-tasker before her time, Mary also fends off the bad nanny, Miss Andrew (Janna Cardia), who ruined Mr. Banks’ childhood with a lifetime supply of “Brimstone and Treacle,” and threatens to do the same for another generation. Best of all, Mary finds a very congenial soul mate in the philosophical chimney sweep Bert (played by Robert Pieranunzi with totally contagious charm and the same magnetism he brought to Glendale Centre Theatre’s Bye Bye Birdie).

The busy and often beautiful staging delivers Kevin Clowes’ pop-up and fold-out storybook scenery and Natalie Jackson’s rolling props that depict everything from a kitchen going to pot to the rooftops of London to the dormer bedroom where Mary sleeps with the once recalcitrant Banks kids. Pelzig’s choreography regales us with the pulse-pounding, broom-banging exuberance of “Step in Time,” the break-out kitchen romp of the hypoglycemic “Spoonful of Sugar,” the full-out and contagiously silly “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (a stop-the-show production number that is as refreshing as it is rousing), and the concluding liberation anthem “Anything Can Happen If You Let It” (a very curious moral, it could apply equally to saving serious children from depression or unleashing a new bubonic plague around the world.)

Exuberant as these hijinks look and feel, they neatly fit the formula enshrined in other musicals such as The Music Man, Hello, Dolly! and 110 in the Shade: A mysterious to mystical stranger enters a closed and cold world—and alters everything but herself. M.P. and her tough love is a dogged puncture of pomposity and a relentless instigator of happiness and hope. Get out of her way if you know what’s good for you. But do catch MTW’s engaging production; the updated musical may lack some of the film’s magic, but there’s no shortage of magic on the Carpenter stage.

photos by Caught in the Moment Photography

Mary Poppins
Musical Theatre West
Richard and Karen Carpenter
Performing Arts Center
6200 E. Atherton at Cal State Long Beach
ends on July 23, 2017
for tickets, call 562.856.1999 or visit Musical

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