Review: Mary Poppins a dollop of cheer for even the most dour curmudgeon

Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Nov. 26-Dec. 29, 2019
Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh
Book by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Megan Watson

Deborah Hay, centre, leads a strong cast and versatile ensemble in the Grand Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins. Photo by Morris Lamont

I have never been a fan of Mary Poppins, the classic 1964 Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Too saccharine, too fantastic and too stylised, with characters that seemed caricatures of themselves. And those dancing penguins. Oy.

In the current production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical at the Grand Theatre, the sweetness remains. But it’s cut from pure cane, rather than something entirely artificial, dispensed by a film studio’s paper envelope. The result is a show that preserves the story’s precious fantasy while delivering considerably more humanity.

That additional depth is the result of a script that slightly re-imagines the story while preserving its central, fanciful themes (“Anything can happen if you let it,” for example). But the powerful performances in this show are what carry it to the rooftops and, at its opening last night, had the audience clapping along and cheering at every opportunity.

The Grand has a history of bringing talented actors to its stages to produce stand-out performances. But in Mary Poppins, the considerable artistry of a clutch of additional cast members, under the direction of artistic associate Megan Watson, conspire to tell a story in which characters possess depth as well as musical dexterity.

The experienced Deborah Hay is practically perfect as the Banks children’s whimsical nanny. But her performance is firmly buttressed by the superb renditions of Alexis Gordon as Winifred Banks (a shining jewel in her own right), Mark Uhre as Bert (a rising star, to be sure), the highly versatile Jan Alexandra Smith as both Bird Woman and the austere Miss Andrew, and Ben Carlson as the embattled George Banks. Hayden Baerstsoen and Abi Verhaeghe shine as Michael and Jane Banks, while Phoebe Hu has a way of making Mrs. Brill, the housekeeper, an entertainment in her own right.

The show’s lighting, especially the projections used against a plain white set and giant scrim to convey setting and space, are efficient and its animations mesmerizing. Stratford-based Stephen Cota’s often-demanding choreography is a consistent visual delight. And the always-dicey flying effects seemed, on this night, to operate flawlessly.

There were a few opening-night snafus. A couple of projections were out of sync with the action. Some of Mary Poppins’ magical props appeared to function a bit stubbornly. And there were times when the orchestra, conducted by Craig Fair, overpowered the vocalists on stage. These will no doubt be ironed out over the first week or so of the show’s month-long run.

As I mentioned in a previous post, P.L. Travers intensely disliked what Walt Disney and his subordinates had done to her literary creation with their 1964 film fantasy. Would she have approved of the stage version? Who knows.

But for Londoners wanting to see home-grown talent in lead roles, rendering a highly challenging musical with all the joy and charm of the holiday season, this is a show not to be missed.

Winifred Banks (Alexis Gordon), Mrs. Brill (Phoebe Hu), Robertson Ay (Giovanni Spina), Michael Banks (Hayden Baertsoen) and Jane Banks (Abi Verhaeghe) get a stern lecture from George Banks (Ben Carlson) in the 2019 production of Mary Poppins at the Grand Theatre. Photo by Morris Lamont

Author: Cornies

I'm a columnist and writer with continuing interests in arts journalism, Canadian politics and culture, and journalism ethics. I teach occasionally at Western University in London, Ontario. Past lives include coordinating the journalism program at Conestoga College, teaching at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, editing A-section news pages at The Globe and Mail, and various roles at The London Free Press, including arts and entertainment editor and editorial page editor.

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