'Mary Poppins' keeps spirit of film while tweaking characters to deliver something new

Posted by Donna Freedman on May 22, 2013 

Madeline Trumble as Mary Poppins and Con Oshea Creal as Bert in the touring production of "Mary Poppins."

JEREMY DANIEL

  • "Mary Poppins" continues through June 2 at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Tickets are available at centertix.net.

— You will not see dancing penguins at “Mary Poppins,” the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh collaboration that opened Tuesday at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. But there’s so much else to delight and surprise that the terpsichoric birds weren’t really missed.

The high-energy musical enthralled an enthusiastic crowd that was not limited to families. More than a few singled and kid-free couples were spotted enjoying the brilliant colors, sprightly tunes and innovative sets and scenery.

“Mary Poppins” retains the best parts of the beloved children’s film but tweaks them slightly, both to add backstory and to translate the action to a live musical format. This works quite well, but parents should know that it’s not the same as the movie.

Specifically: Most children under age 5 will be bored during the talky-talky bits and potentially terrified during two new and deeply creepy songs, “Playing the Game” and “Brimstone and Treacle.” (The latter makes you wonder what kind of nanny Cameron Mackintosh had.)

Interestingly, the heart of the show is not its title character but rather the jack-of-all-trades Bert (Con O’Shea-Creal). The actor imbues the role with warmth, sweetness, street smarts and absolute self-confidence. This Bert neither kowtows to the rich nor bends a knee to Mary Poppins. Everyone is his equal, and his friend.

And oh, the dancing! O’Shea-Creal is limber and joyous in the big production numbers. Even his non-dance moves seem to be performed to music only he can hear. His topsy-turvy tapdancing in the “Step in Time” number brought wild and well-deserved applause. (My 11-year-old companion’s mouth was actually hanging open in awe.) The live-action character of Mary Poppins is noticeably different than the film version’s. While no one would expect (or respect) a slavish reproduction of Julie Andrews’ performance, the role comes across less as a wise and all-knowing caregiver and more of a wise guy and know-it-all.

To be clear: This is the fault of the writers, who required actor Madeline Trumble to sing about her sterling qualities in “Practically Perfect” and who don’t give her much to work with regarding characterization. She shows up uninvited, runs roughshod over the Banks’ usual way of doing things and spends an awful lot of time feeling self-satisfied about how right she is.

Trumble does what she can with the material and is a delightful singer and dancer. She’s at her best when encouraging the children to think for themselves (“When will you learn to look past what you see?”) and to ask for more in life (“Anything can happen if you let it”).

To be fair, she has to run roughshod over the Banks household: It’s the only way things will ever improve. She literally brings color to their staid lives, turning the children’s view of the world from drab to fab with sets and costumes heavy on silks, ribbons and brilliant colors.

The lighting makes the set’s colors shimmer, at times signals that a Mary Poppins miracle is about to occur and at one point moves out in to the audience to draw us into the onstage magic. Scene changes are seamless thanks to innovative sets that open like dollhouses and pop-up books.

As George and Winifred Banks, actors Chris Hoch and Kerry Conte are considerably less pompous than their onscreen counterparts. When George’s job is threatened he comes across as a man who’s mournfully aware of what’s gone wrong with his entire life. Winifred is a former actress who chafes against a role (trophy wife) that she didn’t know she was agreeing to take. Her performance shimmers with longing for a fuller life with the George she once knew, “the real you that no one else is seeing.”

Two supporting characters are also standouts. Tregoney Shepherd was consistently amusing funny as the zaftig and exasperated housekeeper Mrs. Brill; her droll antics drew the eye any time she was onstage. Karen Murphy played two roles, and played them well: the terrifying nanny Miss Andrew and the sweet-faced, rag-clad Bird Woman, whose “Feed the Birds” song was achingly beautiful.

Although the show runs almost three hours with intermission, it seems to be over too soon. When Mary sings, “With every job, when it’s complete, there is a sense of bittersweet,” we know exactly what she means.


Donna Freedman blogs about personal finance at donnafreedman.com

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