After consistently grumbling through my critical career about detesting corny American musicals, maybe I’ve finally reached my more docile oatmeal-munching golden years, touting the success in 2009 of Legally Blonde at the Pantages, Altar Boyz at the Celebration, Minsky’s at the Ahmanson, Pippin at the Taper, and even (shudder!) The Lion King at Mandalay Bay in Vegas. This is not to mention the 50s do-wop confection Life Could Be a Dream at the Hudson, which I didn’t review but smiled all the way through despite of myself—maybe due to the fact that, for once, I was not the oldest person in the audience.
I may not yet be ready for corn as high as an elephant’s eye, worrying about the problem of Maria, or hanging out at real good clambakes, but something’s sure changing. Perhaps it’s simply age-related musical menopause?
Now, hold onto your seats, folks, for although I went to see the SoCal arrival of Mary Poppins under duress, succumbing to the pitiful groveling and begging of my beloved rabid Poppins fan pal Marcia deRousse, I must admit I left the Ahmanson having thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The thing is, I may be the only human being on the planet who has never seen the original movie in 1964. Back then, at age 17, I was too cool for school to sit through such obvious pabulum when I was busy dropping acid and being all kumbayah, and through the years, the clips I’ve seen of the terminally syrupy Disney epic and the uber-gooey Sherman Brothers score have kept me away without a moment’s pause that I might be missing something.
Well, 45 year later, I could certainly still do without “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Supercalifragilisticyouknowhat,” but this production is still golden. The producers, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, don’t really seem terribly concerned about marketing their extravaganza for the kiddie market, since after an 8pm curtain, the three-plus hour running time all but guarantees the munchkins will be sleeping soundly in their parents’ laps by the show’s final spoonful of sugar.
What makes this Poppins pop is spectacular production values and more live Disney special effects than a trip to Space Mountain. The Banks family’s old brownstone on Cherry Tree Lane opens like a book to reveal a remarkably sturdy two-story Victorian townhouse; Mary’s small carpetbag spews forth 6-ft. plants, cordless floor lamp that light on impact with the floor, and beds that pop out of nowhere; while a dismal, dark and rainy park turns into a colorful Magic Kingdom romp featuring nearly-naked statuary that comes to life and a computerized sky filled with birds right our of Uncle Remus-land.
Julian Fellowes’ stage adaptation of the original film script is cleverly in keeping with the idea of catering to the grown up children in the audience so yearning for nostalgia that they’ll pop (I keep saying pop, don’t I?) for the $102 top ticket price; Richard Eyre’s direction never lets up on the placement of continuous tongue-in-cheek whimsy; while Bob Crowley’s amazing set design, including a computerized sky over London that flies its feeding birds aloft right over the entire audience—followed later by Miss P. herself—and his delightful and decidedly Suessicalian costuming could not be more wondrous.
The performances are all charming here, save Andrew Keegan-Bolger who, as the Banks’ puffed-up butler Robertson Ay, deserves a good slap, offering enough non-stop distracting mugging to cost the entire production any chance of Ensemble Awards at year’s end. Original Broadway stars Ashley Brown in the title role and Gavin Lee as Bert are both perfectly cast, though I suspect they might both have been playing the roles too long to completely recreate their original New York magic.
Karl Kenzler is excellent as the woebegone, stiff-backed family patriarch with a guaranteed character-arc, Megan Osterhaus is suitably patient as his ever-suffering wife, and Valerie Boyle as the housekeeper does an amazing job of sharing most of her scenes with Keegan-Bolger without bopping him soundly on the head.
Bryce Baldwin and Kate Balen are professional way beyond their years as the Bank children and Brian Letendre is a major standout as Neleus, the rust-dripping figleaf-sporting statue come to life to look for his father Neptune—a position I for one would be happy to apply to fulfill for him anytime if he needs an eager fatherly substitute.
Local musical theatre veteran Mary VanArsdel’s sad little Bird Woman provides touching moments and lends her beautiful voice to the haunting ballad “Feed the Birds,” but the most indelible performance in this Mary Poppins is Ellen Harvey’s hilarious and operatic Yma Sumacian turn as the Cruella-esque Miss Andrew, George Banks’ hideously villainous childhood nanny whose rendition of “Brimstone and Treacle” makes me want to never again take anything a nurse offers me by spoon.
Still, the most obvious star of this multi-award winning musical confection is the wonderfully whimsical and spirited Olivier Award-winning choreography by none other than Matthew Bourne, the guiding light behind former Ahmanson tenants Car Man, Cinderella, Play Without Words, Edward Scissorhands, and his most well-known initial fame-producing effort, the all-male Swan Lake. His work here once again steals the show—and a huge show it is to steal.
Here I thought I’d used up my own spoonful of sugar long ago but, thanks to Mary Poppins, I’m sweetened up all over again. Hit me up quick, though; I bet the sugar rush won’t last long.
Mary Poppins plays through Feb. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; For tickets, call 213.972.4400 or book online at www.centertheatregroup.org.