In her first song in the stage musical about her, Mary Poppins sings a tune entirely new to this version of her story. It’s called Practically Perfect and, in it, the supernatural nanny describes herself as “practically perfect in every way.”
The Mary Poppins musical can be described in similar words, if you scramble them up a bit: It’s perfectly practical, in every way.
Director Richard Eyre, book writer Julian Fellowes and new songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have put together a show that is well-crafted, functional and does precisely what it says on the label.
At the same time, however, their Poppins – part reboot, part remix of the beloved 1964 Disney film – is missing a certain spark, the absence of which makes it hard to get terribly excited about or 100 per cent emotionally involved in.
As in the movie, jack-of-all-trades Bert – Nicolas Dromard, in the touring production that has flown down Toronto’s chimney for a spell – is our narrator. The affable Dromard’s barely-there Cockney accent immediately puts the musical on different footing than the film, which featured Dick Van Dyke doing a half-cocked one that continues to be regarded as one of the worst accents in film history.
Bert opens the musical with Chim Chim Cher-ee, here adapted to set the scene at a Banks household recognizable from earlier incarnations but with significant differences in dynamic.
George Banks (Laird Mackintosh) remains a stern banker aloof from his nanny-exasperating children, Jane and Michael (Camden Angelis and Dakota Ruiz on opening night). “Precision and order, that’s all that I ask for,” he sings, in a new song fairly seamlessly sewed in.
Winifred Banks, however, is no longer an insufferable suffragette who neglects her family; the musical, in keeping with the pop-culture zeitgeist, has shifted the blame for the family’s dysfunction entirely onto the father.
This Mrs. Banks – played beautifully by a bird-like Blythe Wilson – is a former actress adapting poorly to being the stay-at-home socialite Mr. Banks expects.
This Mr. Banks suffers from severe status anxiety; the reason he insists on employing a nanny is that families of a certain class are expected to do so. It’s his journey of self-discovery that is, in fact, the musical’s most compelling character arc – it’s well written by Fellowes, and Mackintosh makes it entirely moving in a nuanced performance that is practically perfect.
The bulk of the show, however, concerns Mary Poppins (Rachel Wallace, who shines) and Bert’s adventures with the children. In the first act, they head to the park for a Jolly Holiday, where they dance with statues. They also visit to a “talking shop” where words like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious are for sale; choreographer Matthew Bourne turns this familiar number into a crowd-pleaser featuring the company spelling out the nonsense word in invented sign language and a kind of flag-less semaphore.
All this is episodic and, combined with the emotionally limited performance by the two child actors, it makes the first act feel very long and somewhat aimless.
I’d suggest this problem stems from a desire to cram all the favourite Sherman Brothers songs from the film into the musical, but, in fact, it’s a brand-new one, Playing the Game, that seems most superfluous. In it, Jane and Michael’s toys come to life and chastise them for playing roughly with them; this odd number seems misjudged, not particularly entertaining or scary.
Mary Poppins strides much more purposefully through its shorter second half, which begins with the return of the nanny who gave Mr. Banks his post-traumatic syndrome, Miss Andrew (a vocally impressive Q. Smith, who also makes an earlier appearance as a big, black Queen Victoria).
Step in Time is the showstopper here and it features, again, impressive, inventive choreography from Bourne that eventually leads to Bert tap dancing upside-down at the top of the Princess of Wales’s proscenium arch – one of the few uses of wires here that is more than perfunctory.
Anything Can Happen (If You Let It) is the show’s new finale, all kite-flying having been dealt with earlier in the show. And, indeed, if you let it, Mary Poppins will carry you away.
- Original music and lyrics by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman
- New music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
- Book by Julian Fellowes
- Directed by Richard Eyre
- Starring Rachel Wallace and Nicolas Dromard
- At the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto through Jan. 8