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Theater review: 'Mary Poppins' at the Ahmanson Theatre

November 16, 2009 |  6:40 pm

Mary poppins 1 
Mary Poppins wafted into the Ahmanson Theatre on her magic umbrella Sunday evening, and even those who think they’ve outgrown her carpetbag of enchantment will have to admit that her timing is, to use one of her pet phrases, “practically perfect.”

The show, while not intended as a holiday entertainment, takes on a special glow as the days get dark early and merriment is placed on family to-do lists. (Sure, Mary can be a bit of a martinet, but wouldn’t you rather jump into a painting with her than clock more overtime with Scrooge?) More surprising is the tale’s recessionary relevance. Live-in nannies may be a thing of the past, but the story of a cold, uptight banker who discovers his humanity at home after his career falls off the hinges is like some kind of post-Lehman Brothers-WaMu fairy tale.

This musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ classic invention, a co-production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, tries to reconcile the sharp edges of the original stories with the cheerier Walt Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (the latter of whom made a surprise appearance at the curtain call on opening night, looking impossibly young and dapper). The high-flying spectacle, running on the rocket fuel of such memorable movie numbers as “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” can't help being delightful. But the contrasting tones between Travers and Disney aren’t any more blendable than oil and water.

Mary Poppins, always a mystery, becomes something of a paradox — brusque and no-nonsense on the outside, she’s smoldering with warmth on the inside. These antitheses, rather than seeming more distinctive in combination, tend to cancel each other, replacing personality with empty enigma, even if the outline is an appealing one.

Still, Ashley Brown, who plays Mary, and Gavin Lee, who plays street artist and chimney sweep Bert, have such a pleasant otherworldly chemistry that it overcomes most of the interpretive static. (Both actors were in the original Broadway cast, and their comfort with each other shows.) Bert gazes adoringly on Mary as though she were a fetching UFO orbiting benevolently in his airspace while Mary looks back in the knowledge that Bert has secret powers all his own.

The book by Julian Fellowes, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (“Gosford Park”), could use some streamlining, though it’s hard to cut from Travers’ banquet of escapades. The scenes at the Banks family home on Cherry Tree Lane (Bob Crowley’s marvelous sets and costumes supply just enough for our imaginations to complete the picture) are perhaps most in need of editing, especially the moments in which George Banks (Karl Kenzler), the regimented banker, cartoonishly rebuffs his obstreperous children, Jane and Michael (played on opening night by Bailey Grey and Carter Thomas), whose bad behavior is in direct proportion to his remoteness.  (Katie Balen and Bryce Baldwin assume the roles of Jane and Michael at certain performances.)  

There are, of course, some priceless comic bits at home, as when the kids throw a few monkey wrenches into the preparations for the tea-party George’s wife, Winifred (Megan Osterhaus), is anxiously throwing with help from the overburdened cook Mrs. Brill (Valerie Boyle). Or when George’s former governess, the witchy Miss Andrew (Ellen Harvey), arrives as a replacement for Mary and, administering the same punishment she used on their father, hilariously spoons brimstone and treacle into Jane’s and Michael’s unwilling mouths.

But it’s outdoors where this “Mary Poppins” flaunts its sorcery. The choreography of Matthew Bourne (who’s credited with co-directing) entices park statutes to balletically come to life and Bert to walk upside down at such a height as to give an acrophobe a heart attack. The dancing, for the most part, isn’t exceptional, but it becomes part of an enchanting illustration that confirms the truth of the song “Anything Can Happen,” one of the effective new additions by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that supplement the  timeless tunes of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman's Oscar-winning score.
Richard Eyre’s staging is gentler and cozier than when I first encountered this updated take on “Mary Poppins” in London a year or so before it opened in New York in 2006. Sentiment and color have been funneled  in, as though to appease American sensibilities. Lee’s Bert, a bright spot in the original West End company, still manages to tether his musical comedy horseplay to working-class reality. The biggest difference lies in the portrayal of Mary, whose robotic facade has been softened — she’s still several chromosomes short of Julie Andrews’ radiant amiability, but a beating heart has been implanted.

One of the great ironies of children’s literature is that Travers, a native Australian who spent most of her life in England, where she died in 1996, wasn’t exactly the nurturing type. An obsessively private writer, she was a scholar of folklore and myth who was notorious for putting nosy journalists in their place when they came to her home to get the real scoop about Mary Poppins. The author's mystical worldview (“bird and beast and stone and star — we are all one”) didn’t mean that she suffered fools gladly.

The new production, which can get a little sermonizing about such things as the rights of household staff and toys, doesn’t quite have the courage of Travers’ curt conviction, particularly where it concerns Mary's implacable nature. But it’s still a lovely animation of the world of a miraculous character, who continues to endure despite her assurance that nothing lasts forever. 

-- Charles McNulty

"Mary Poppins,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles Music Center, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Feb. 7. $20 to $102. (213) 972-4400 or Running time:  2 hours, 45 minutes.

Photo: Top: Ashley Brown. Credit: Joan Marcus.