It has been more than a half-century since the whole world learned the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” invented for the award-winning film Mary Poppins created by the Disney Studio after the notoriously long, arduous negotiations with author P. L. Travers. When the author finally gave in to pleas for a musical stage version, she stipulated that only British writers were to be the creators of the show, no Americans! She was not happy with Walt and crew. (See the wonderful film Saving Mr. Banks with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson for the whole story.)
As a stage musical, Mary Poppins is relentlessly good natured, with a soupçon of villainy to spice up the conflicts. The story of the magical nanny who saves the feisty Banks children from going irreparably bad is so well known that it won’t serve to recount plot points here. As Mary Poppins, Gracie Navaille sings like the proverbial bird, dances with agility and polish, and livens up her character with the expected, righteous Poppins confidence. As her confidant and cohort, Bert, the narrator/chimney sweep/street artist, Rhett Wheeler is Gracie’s equal in the songbird category and dances up a storm in the many vigorous numbers that entertain so well. Only the often too-saccharin script holds him back. Bert is so good and kind and wise, we long for some flaws or flashes of dark doubt. Maybe a bit more unrequited longing would serve.
As the juvenile objects of Mary Poppins’ attention, Maddie Mizgorski (Jane Banks) and Samantha Scattini (Michael Banks) are very appealing, delivering a thoroughly professional display of fine singing and precision dancing. (Lauren and Andrew Monsour take the roles on alternate performances.) Scott McQuiston makes a fine, bottled-up banker, a man ruined by his nasty nanny, Mrs. Andrew (an over-the top, scenery-chewing Donna Federico). Katie Day is sympathetic as Winnifred Banks, a flustered mother, striving to be a good, upwardly-mobile wife, while having no clue about raising her children, having given in to her husband’s demands for a nanny. I was sad to see that the script changed Mrs. Banks from a suffragette, as in the film, to an ex-actress. It would have given her an edge that is missing. Her name was also changed from the original Cynthia to a “more English-sounding” Winnifred, per Ms. Travers. I kinda like Cynthia. Fewer syllables if spoken briskly.
Other stand-out performers include the aforementioned Donna Federico who, as the Bird Woman, brings the audience to tears with her touching number, “Feed the Birds.” Lydia Monsour is charming as the magical, mysterious Mrs. Corry and her two daughters Fanny (Lily Bunch) and Annie (Kate Bunch) are delightful. Devin Adler, actor/dancer and co-choreographer, delivers a blistering solo tap routine before dissolving back into the chorus for a bunch of big, finely honed numbers such as the vigorous “Step in Time.” And the chorus is terrific. They are energetic and well rehearsed, delivering big numbers with aplomb under choreographer Pamela Crane and Mr. Adler. While mindful of varying abilities, the choreographers pushed the ensemble to their limits and the cast responds with gusto.
Susanne Burns keeps the action brisk. The scenic design by Patrick McEvoy, with lighting by Derek Duarte, makes for fluid scene changes, with projections and video that help fill in the many London locales. Costumes by Ziona Goren are colorful and fit the 1910 period while giving a nod to the film.
The most important thing about this production is simply the joy of it. I soaked it up with a smile on my face pretty much throughout. It is a four-star crowd pleaser.
Mary Poppins runs through July 24 at PacRep’s Golden Bough Theatre in Carmel.