The producers of Mary Poppins want to have it both ways. They have loudly hawked the notion that their lavish spectacle — while not altogether abandoning the oozy schmaltz of the 1964 Walt Disney movie — reinstates some starch from the original Poppins novels by P. L. Travers. And in fact, the result of this good-faith balancing act is a Disney musical darker and more mature than Uncle Walt likely would have approved. But there's another balancing act at work here, less obvious perhaps but equally precarious: This evening of live musical theater also strives to convey the essence of a film. There are discombobulating moments when we experience the curious feeling not only that we are watching a movie, but that we might even be in a movie.
Nothing is quite as it seems on the Fox stage. This retelling of the tale about a mysterious nanny who heals a dysfunctional London family is not merely an extended magic act. It constantly turns our conventional way of viewing the stage topsy-turvy, thus insisting that we never get ahead of a story that many of us think we already know. The sets by Bob Crowley often distort our normal theater perspective. From what point of view, for instance, are we supposed to be watching the scenes in the Bank of England?
Perhaps the ultimate topsy-turvy alliance between stage and screen occurs in the spirited Act Two number "Step in Time." Bert the chimney sweep (Gavin Lee), who up till now hasn't had much to do except be a charming interlocutor, takes off from his tap dancing cronies and walks the stage proscenium — up, across the top, and back down again. Such anti-gravitational athleticism is a direct lift from when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling in Stanley Donen's 1951 movie Royal Wedding. (If you're going to steal, steal from the best.) Except that unlike in the movie, where we ask ourselves, "How did Fred do that?" here we see how Lee does it. No effort is made to hide the apparatus that has him standing upside down. But the blood never rushed to Fred Astaire's head; his dance was a camera stunt. Watching Gavin Lee upside down 30 feet in the air is a most exhilarating kind of theatricality.
So many savvy and ambitious things have been done here. Stage lights are located in nooks and crannies that have never before been utilized at the Fox (again, with the intent of drawing us into the interior of Mary's world). Some of those original Sherman Brothers songs from the film are simple stuff, yet the rich orchestrations by William David Brohn make them sound as if they were written by Jerome Kern. (The Fox Theatre orchestra sounds terrific.) The unique imagination of choreographer and co-director Matthew Bourne is in clear evidence, especially in the surreal scenes where statues come to life. The whole shebang passes through the keen eye of director Richard Eyre, whose very imprimatur is that any project he works on must have a substantive reason to exist beyond mere entertainment.
Are there flaws? Alas, yes. The evening is at least ten minutes longer than it need be (though you'll surely be sorry when it's over). It's especially unfortunate that the story's arc builds to "Anything Can Happen," a platitudinous new song that is mired in the simplistic Sherman Brothers mode. But in the title role, Ashley Brown is nigh flawless. She doesn't get Julie Andrews' fuzzy close-ups. Brown must draw the audience to her through sheer talent (which begins with the clarity of an otherworldly singing voice). Brown delivers an understated yet droll performance apportioned with spoonfuls of concentration, simplicity and distillation. Ever unfazed, she doesn't waste an extra motion, nor does she stoop to winning us over with sly winks and nods. Brown's discipline is, as Mary Poppins herself would tersely state, "practically perfect."
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