It’s only fitting that in a month characterized the advent of spring and plenty of wind, the bubbly and colorful Mary Poppins would breeze into Big D. Dallas Summer Musicals brings the mystical yet mirthful governess in the Tony Award-winning production directed by Richard Eyre back to the Music Hall at Fair Park for a short time.
If you’re embarking on your first visit to the musical but have seen the movie, don’t bother comparing the two—it could cause more frustration or confusion than enjoyment. It’s more of a re-imagined Mary Poppins, rather than a stage adaptation of the original Walt Disney movie, which was originally based on the stories of P.L. Travers. Writer Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) took material from the film and Travers’ books to create a tale with the same narrative structure as the former but with more detail in character and plot. Familiar songs from Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman are adapted and new songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe join the party.
The curtain opens on a silhouetted ensemble with Bert (Con O’Shea-Creal) popping out of a chimney to introduce the audience to the Banks family as they lose yet another nanny due to their children’s mischievous behavior. Finding a new one, however, seems to take place in the blink of an eye. As George and Winifred Banks (Chris Hoch and Kerry Conte) attempt to create an ad for a new disciplinarian, Jane and Michael Banks (Madison Mullahey and Eli Tokash) construct their own plea for a nanny of the opposite nature. Their wish is granted in the form of Mary Poppins (Madeline Trumble), who arrives in less time than it took for Mr. Banks to rip up his children’s ad.
Mary treats the children to a series of games and lessons, which hopefully will change their devilish ways. First lesson (one that repeats throughout) is to look past appearances. On that note, park statues come to life (with ballet, nonetheless) and the dreary-colored set quickly dissolves into a feast of brilliant color (“Jolly Holiday”). If any dancers in the audience are wondering why the sheep statues look and move so much like Matthew Bourne’s swans, it’s because he choreographed (along with Stephen Mear) and co-directed.
Later, Mary takes the children to the bank where their father works. Designer Bob Crowley brilliantly utilizes a black and white skewed-perspective backdrop with gray and black-clad workers to marvelously create a stereotypical bank scene. The ensemble’s stiff movements and orderly floor patterns only add to the pretentious setting.
On the way home, the children run into the Bird Woman (“Feed the Birds”) and Mrs. Corry and her “conversation” shop. The latter scene has a convoluted lead-in and a confusing dialogue sequence, but fortunately culminates in one of the most recognizable Disney musical songs (“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) and an ingenious dance routine to illustrate it.
Most of these scenes feel somewhat familiar, even if the musical numbers seem out of place, but the biggest departure from the film’s plot comes towards the end of Act I and runs throughout Act II. Unexpected “adieus” and arrivals show a different side of Mary and a new terrifying character is introduced. Family issues and gender roles receive a deeper treatment, but before things get too heavy, the biggest dance number of the show “Step in Time” explodes in our faces with endless energy and even inverted tap dancing. Mary’s work is eventually done when the family rediscovers its joy and she returns to the sky the same way she came. (In this tour, she doesn't fly out through the audience, as in the previous stop in Dallas.)
Performances by Trumble and O’Shea-Creal hit the spot, and Emily Cramer attacks her role as the Mrs. Brill, the cook, with humor and wit. Hoch brings a new side to Mr. Banks, even if he seems a little too passionate and zealous at the beginning. And since Disney does villains so well, it’s no surprise that Karen Murphy captivates with her portrayal of the evil nanny Miss Andrew by her stiff, ghastly demeanor and wide vocal range.
Mullahey and Tokash in the children’s roles are quite impressive, in that they maintain their characters and nail their songs and lines without missing a beat throughout a rather lengthy performance. Mullahey’s accent, however, is a little too forced and it’s difficult to hear her lines and songs, probably due to a combination of her delivery and the amplification.
As far as the story goes, it’s nice to see more complexity in the characters through an extended plot, but it creates a long show and at times seems to overwork an already simple tale. A dark new musical number on the importance of taking care of your toys (“Playing the Game”) makes things a little too creepy.
The dancing and musical numbers make up for the faults, and the delightfully thrilling theatrical effects add the perfect finishing touch. Visually, the production is “practically perfect” and should be a joyful treat for people of all ages.