To call the story of the magical nanny in early 20th-century England a play wouldn’t do justice to its lavish production numbers or combination of new music and tunes from the 1964 Disney film. Yet calling the production a musical isn’t what actress Madeline Trumble’s Poppins would term “practically perfect.”
So perhaps “Mary Poppins” is best described as an experience and one not just for the young children who filled many seats opening night. (Many were napping or sleepy by the middle of this second act.) Adults sometimes hummed or sang along when a Richard and Robert Sherman song from the movie was performed. Several of the production numbers got rousing applause.
“Mary Poppins” is the touring production of the Broadway musical of the same name and part of the “Broadway at the Tennessee” series. Its creative set early established the feeling of a Broadway-style experience. The house of George and Winifred Banks and their naughty, nanny-punishing children, Jane and Michael, is a giant, two-story doll house of sorts. Its exterior pushes forward and then folds out into the family living space. Later the house is spun around and its back opens to show a kitchen.
This story is tweaked from that of the Julie Andrews movie some likely expected to see repeated. There’s parts of original P.L Travers books and some additions in the script written by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes. Here, Poppins leaves the Banks children in the play’s middle. (She flies back, and imaginatively so, at the start of the second act.) There’s a subplot about the Banks parents’ marriage and the possible unemployment — and personal transformation — of the rigid George Banks. The play adds a villain in Miss Andrew, a nanny who raised George Banks and returns to rear his children.
Storylines take a back seat when the production numbers kick in. They, like the set and costuming, underscore that this is a Broadway show. Beautifully choreographed and precisely performed, the numbers include the colorful first act “Jolly Holiday” and the breathtaking “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Then there’s the show-stopping chimney sweep “Step in Time.” Con O’Shea-Creal’s chimney sweep Bert walks up one side of the theater stage wall, walks across its top and descends along the other side wall.
Even when he’s not walking upside down, O’Shea-Creal was excellent as part Mary Poppins sidekick, part possible love interest, part play narrator and part audience confidante. Another round of applause goes to Karen Murphy in the small, but pivotal part of Miss Andrew. She plays the nanny with the rule-consciousness of “Downton Abbey’s” Dowager Duchess and the meanness of “The Wizard of Oz’s” Wicked Witch of the West. Murphy also shines in the singing cameo of the Bird Woman; her voice made the quiet song "Feed the Birds" one of the play’s poignant moments.
Now for a few criticisms. Trumble’s singing voice opening night sounded shrill on some high notes. Between the sound amplification and their would-be British accents, the youngsters playing the Banks children were often tough to understand. And one production number — where Poppins turns toys into human-size objects and they decide the youngsters aren’t nice enough to keep them — was dark and creepy. Otherwise “Mary Poppins,” was, to steal from its song titles “Practically Perfect” and a “Jolly Holiday.”
“Mary Poppins” continues with 7:30 p.m. shows today and March 7, 8 p.m. March 8, 2 and 8 p.m. March 9, 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 10. The Saturday matinee is sold out; the Sunday matinee had limited tickets earlier today. For ticket prices and tickets, see www.tennesseetheatre.com.
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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