Presented by North Shore Music Theatre
Book by Julian Fellows
Original and lyrics by Richard Sherman & Robert Sherman
New materials by Anthony Drewe & George Stiles
Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh
A Musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers & the Walt Disney Film
Directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill
Music direction by Milton Granger
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Beverly, MA) It’s hard to tinker with a musical movie that many consider practically perfect in every way, but when there’s money to be made, many a scriptwriter will try. Mary Poppins – The Musical is more successful than most Disney rehashes at adding some new touches to a classic plot and score, even if the finished product feels a bit overlong, and the North Shore Music Theatre production of this spectacle does a solid job staging this spectacle.
The script, written by Julian Fellows with musical score by Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman, and George Stiles, seems to want to combine elements of both the 1964 Disney film and the more dour material from the original books. It restores the slightly menacing magic of the central nanny, and the chimney sweeps also gain a guardian angel quality to them. Also, this version deepens the family crisis, fleshing out the economic and emotional anxiety of Mr. Banks, a theme that later appears fleshed out even more in the 2013 movie Saving Mr. Banks. The children have a window to choose between sociopaths or caring individuals. Mrs. Banks still doesn’t manage to be more than a reflection of her family, but at least she rises above the caricature of feminism that was the Mrs. Banks in the 1964 film.
The added music does little to dispel the sugary memory of the original score, and at times musical themes are punctuated to such an extent that there is a danger to diminishing the original score to a “It’s a Small World” reverence. The only semi-new musical number that sticks, in my opinion, is “Step in Time”, performed with tap percussion by a fleet of chimney sweeps, but even this doesn’t feel there for any other reason than spectacle.
Now that I have shown my obvious sourness towards the decision to resurrect this movie as a stage play (“Get off my childhood lawn”), I should say at this point that the North Shore Music Theatre staging of this play was a very enjoyable theatrical experience. Kerry Conte captivates as Mary, adding the right amount of inscrutability to the character so as to make us all a bit off-balance watching what she might do next. The ensemble cast behind her does a fairly good job bringing the energy and the focus for her to shine, even though they sometimes feel hindered by the ghosts of their predecessors (what is it about that cockney accent that is so hard to pull off? It’s become like an accented curse of theater). Janelle A. Robinson stands out among the supporting cast, sinking her teeth into a dual role as a mystical wordsmith and an anti-Mary Poppins nanny, owning every second of stage time.
The technical aspects of this production show just how much North Shore Music Theatre has grown in showcasing special effects. The border of the ceiling is draped with changing animation that heightens the emotion for many of the scenes. The wiring for gravity-defying sequences is also fun to watch, if it still feels a bit too linear to not be distracting. Overall, this winsome production helps gloss over the script’s shortcomings to create a magical night of theatre, at least for the young at heart.