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

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