A spoonful of Mary Poppins to sweeten the holiday season

Just as the Christmas holiday season can make or break a retailer’s year, so too it can have a dramatic impact on an arts institution’s bottom line. And this year, the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., is placing its hopes on Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s musical stage rendition of Mary Poppins.

London native Deborah Hay stars in Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins, running Nov. 29-Dec. 29 (previews Nov. 26-28) at the Grand Theatre. Photo by Morris Lamont

The musical, based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film, brings to life the meaning of the Grand’s current motto, World Curious London Proud: three of the main characters in the show will be portrayed by actors with deep London roots. Deborah Hay, critically acclaimed for her work at the Stratford and Shaw festivals, takes on the title role. Mark Uhre stars as Bert the chimney sweep, and Alexis Gordon plays Winifred Banks, the mother of the two rambunctious children who drive successive nannies away. Jan Alexandra Smith, well known to London audiences for her work as an actor and choreographer over nearly three decades, portrays Bird Woman and Miss Andrew. Grand Theatre artistic associate Megan Watson directs.

The Grand — and Watson — will be looking to Mary Poppins for box-office results that will eclipse last year’s holiday show, A Christmas Carol. Though critically acclaimed (partly because of its casting of Smith as a female Scrooge), that production of the Dickens classic was a slight disappointment in terms of sales. Also a factor may have been the fact that A Christmas Carol had been the holiday show during the 2017-18 season as well — and been well-received. In that show, Scrooge had been played by Shaw Festival veteran Benedict Campbell.

The Disney/Cameron Mackintosh musical collaboration has an interesting history. Travers (her name at birth was Helen Lyndon Goff) emigrated from Australia to England in 1924 and created the character of Mary Poppins nearly a decade later. Critically acclaimed at publication, the book became the first of a series of eight. Animator and movie producer Walt Disney saw potential in the character and, after a decade and a half of trying, finally persuaded Travers to sell him the rights to the story.

The relationship, however, became tortured. Travers was displeased with Disney’s film version of her story, even though it garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and won five.

Travers was approached in 1993 by British theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh about a stage version of the story. He acquired those rights, but on the condition that the creators be English and that none of them had been involved in the Disney film version. Travers died in 1996. In 2001, Mackintosh and Thomas Schumacher, representing one of the Disney companies, collaborated on a new stage show, using some of the music from the original film. The stage musical opened at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2004.

Fans of the Disney film will quickly notice the differences between the stage and film versions of the Mary Poppins story. The Grand Theatre’s production features original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drew. The book is by Julian Fellowes, whose name has become closely associated with an even greater franchise: the Downton Abbey TV series and feature film. Fellowes was originally brought onto the production team by Disney and Mackintosh precisely because of his deep understanding of British aristocracy and class distinctions in the early 20th century.

London native Mark Uhre plays Bert the chimney sweep opposite Deborah Hay’s Mary Poppins in the current production at the Grand Theatre. Photo by Morris Lamont