Eleven years ago I interviewed Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the legendary, influential British musical theater producer of “Cats,” “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” during his visit to Dayton to oversee the launch of his reconceived production of “Miss Saigon” at the Victoria Theatre. At the end of our conversation, he shared his excitement about a new collaborative project with Disney he hoped would become a reality, a musical version of 1964’s beloved film “Mary Poppins” that would adhere not only to the film but the original books by P.L. Travers. In 2004, his dream came true when “Mary Poppins” opened in London, winning two Olivier Awards in the process. The show subsequently moved to Broadway in 2006, receiving seven Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and playing more than 2,600 performances before closing last month.
It’s great that Dayton audiences can finally see and judge Mackintosh’s approach as the latest, extravagant national tour of “Mary Poppins,” the timeless Victorian London tale of the enchanting titular nanny, flies into town for its local premiere at the Schuster Center courtesy of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series. However, if you’re expecting a consistently feel-good, scene-by-scene replica of the film you’ll be disappointed. Most of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s incredibly delightful songs are intact, but this darker, moody interpretation, assuredly directed by Anthony Lyn incorporating new, impressively Sherman-esque songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, predominately spotlights the emotionally cold rigidity within the Banks household, consisting of the properly uptight Chris Hoch as uncaring banker George, the lovely Kerry Conte as George’s longsuffering wife Winifred, and the chirpy if nearly unintelligible Madison Ann Mullahey and Lucas Schultz who performed the roles of bratty Jane and Michael on opening night.
Focusing on the Banks’ discord is appropriate, but Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning librettist Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park,” “Downton Abbey”) has difficulty juxtaposing cheerless domesticity and themes of capitalism and feminism with the abundantly cheery charm derived from magical Mary (a pertly sophisticated, humorously meticulous Madeline Trumble, vocally upstaged by Conte). Nearly every scene in the Banks residence that doesn’t involve Mary lacks elation. The family ultimately grows closer and more broad-minded with wonderful poignancy, particularly as Jane and Michael learn a valuable lesson in benevolence, but their journey isn’t without tediousness, a problem extending to George’s static scenes at the bank lacking vim and verve.
Still, the production’s finest elements, capturing the film’s joyful allure, are the splendid ensemble numbers choreographed by Geoffrey Garratt (skillfully adapting Matthew Bourne’s marvelous original routines) and featuring outstanding triple threat Con O’Shea Creal as amiable chimney sweep Bert. The visually stunning “Jolly Holiday” (transforming a drab London park into a colorful wonderland), the heartwarming, gestural jubilance of “Supercalifragilsticexpialidocious,” and the remarkably rousing “Step in Time” (which finds Creal dancing on the proscenium in awe-inducing fashion) are totally worth the price of admission. There’s also ample whimsy in “Practically Perfect,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “Anything Can Happen.” Equally noteworthy are the gorgeous “Feed the Birds” and enjoyably sinister “Brimstone and Treacle,” performed by excellent understudy Elizabeth Ann Berg seamlessly pulling double duty as the endearing Bird Woman and nasty nanny Miss Andrew. “Playing the Game,” a bedtime nightmare bringing Jane and Michael’s toys to life, is an unnecessary addition contributing to an overlong Act 1.
Considering the elaborate scope of this tour, I’m surprised it doesn’t match the razzle dazzle of the Broadway production, which memorably flew Mary into the audience as a knockout conclusion. Even so, Bob Crowley’s superb Tony Award-winning storybook sets in addition to Crowley’s attractive costumes, Natasha Katz’s striking lighting design, Paul Groothuis’ first-rate sound design, and musical director Daniel Bowling’s fine orchestra are considerable pleasures.
In spite of its flaws, “Mary Poppins” remains an entertaining, family-friendly spectacle. Mackintosh wouldn’t have envisioned it any other way.
“Mary Poppins” continues through April 21 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Performances continue tonight at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 65 minutes. Tickets are $52-$111. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.