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'Mary Poppins': Will you believe a nanny can fly?

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Broadway in Tucson

'Mary Poppins': Will you believe a nanny can fly?

Limited run closes out season

  • Chimney sweeps gather in 'Mary Poppins.'
    Deen Van Meer/Mary Poppins, The MusicalChimney sweeps gather in 'Mary Poppins.'
  • Mary Poppins cast sings 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.'
    Deen Van Meer/Mary Poppins, The MusicalMary Poppins cast sings 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.'

Any musical “based” on a popular movie — the movie itself based on a series of children’s books — risks a mongrel existence. “Mary Poppins: The Musical” recreates only a portion of the magic from one of Walt Disney’s most beloved movies, though enough to be entertaining.

“Mary Poppins,” the 1964 film, set a high standard. It won five Oscars out of its 13 nominations, introduced Julie Andrews in the title role (earning the Best Actress Oscar in her film debut) and featured lanky comic Dick Van Dyke in his prime. The film boasted Oscar-winning special effects, including extensive wire and harness tricks for the dance sequences and Andrews’ flying. It seamlessly mixed live action with Disney-quality animation. Its tunes, by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, have become classics: “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Despite its success, the film never spawned a sequel because, ironically, Poppins author P. L. Travers hated the movie. She reportedly only agreed to the 2004 stage production with stipulations that no one from the Disney film be involved. This effectively barred the Sherman brothers. As a result, the musical features only four songs in their original form, five songs adapted from the movie with additional lyrics, and seven new songs by the songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Fortunately, the source material has such a surfeit of merriment that even capturing a portion of it is a joy.

The musical opens with a succinct exposition: magical narrator Bert, unruly children Jane and Michael, dour father George and loving mother Winifred, plus the family servants are introduced in the first minutes. We also get the core conflict: George’s lack of emotional involvement with his family, due to the strict upbringing by his own fearsome nanny, a newly created character cheekily named Miss Andrew.

The musical varies from the film in a number of ways, often dictated by the limitations of the stage. Nice lighting effects, but no fireworks or explosives (Admiral Boom appears sans cannon). Park statues that come to life substitute for the film’s animated penguins.

Winifred’s suffragette subplot is deleted, replaced by a vaguely defined quest for social status. George’s career is saved not by making the bank president laugh, but by investing the firm’s capital in factories and jobs, rather than in a financial scheme.

No one can rightly expect a stage version to recreate one of the best dance sequences in movie history: the chimney sweeps’ rooftop antics to “Step in Time.” Still, the musical provides a massed song and dance number that is a genuine tour de force and the high point of the production, capped by Bert’s stroll up the walls and across the ceiling.

Young children seemed to make up only a small portion of the audience Wednesday. That’s probably prudent on a school night, since the show didn’t get out until after 10. Those youngsters able to stay awake appeared to enjoy the show with wide-eyed fascination.

On opening night in the unforgiving acoustics of the TCC Music Hall, it was difficult to understand some lines and lyrics, especially during fast-paced sequences. The orchestra provided warm support, through the brass at triple forte regularly overwhelmed the singers. In a curious effect, conductor Daniel Bowling’s gesturing hand would occasionally rise out of the orchestra pit into view, as if Thing from "The Addams Family" were making a cameo appearance.

Mostly the new numbers integrated well with the originals, only showing faint traces of their mixed genesis. The show attempts to create a new context for the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” by adding a choreographed semaphore spelling, a la “YMCA.”

Rachel Wallace gives a great performance as Julie Andrews portraying Mary Poppins. Likewise, Case Dillard was winning in the thankless role of trying to imitate Dick Van Dyke. Cherish Myers and Zach Timson were troupers as Jane and Michael respectively on opening night, cute, disciplined performers with strong voices. They will alternate with Marissa Ackerman and Zachary Mackiewicz in the children’s roles during the run.

Also outstanding was Benn Atkin as statue-come-to-life Neleus. Q Smith nearly stole the show in pivotal roles as the poignant Bird Woman (“Feed the Birds”) and a brief, fierce appearance as Miss Andrew, counterpointing “A Spoonful of Sugar” with a new song, “Brimstone and Treacle.”

Mary Poppins does indeed fly effortlessly. The wires are visible, though that’s not really much of a concern, given our primal exhilaration in boundless physical freedom on stage. (“Wicked’s” Act I climax, “Defying Gravity.”) As a child, I remember being somewhat comforted by the wires of Mary Martin’s “Peter Pan.”

“Mary Poppins: A Musical Based on the Stories of P. L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film” closes with a final reprise of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Coming after the curtain call, the full cast rendition brought the audience to its feet to sing along, followed by a literal roar of approval at the show’s conclusion.

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