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Mary Poppins — Walnut Street Theatre

untitled (138)Although Lindsey Bliven, playing the title role, rouses the Walnut Street Theatre audience in burgeoning numbers such as “Anything Can Happen” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the highlights of Wayne Bryan’s staging of “Mary Poppins” are found in other scenes, including one that is relatively quiet and contains no magic or music.

The outstanding moment of the show comes when a new governess arrives at Cherry Tree Lane. But I’m not talking about Mary Poppins, whose entrance is whimsical enough, appearing out of blue as she does. I’m referring to Miss Andrew, a.k.a. the Holy Terror, the strict nurse Mrs. Banks summonses to mind her unruly children and to please Mr. Banks, who constantly refers to the upbringing Miss Andrew provided him.

Wearing a coat with pointed cap sleeves, Deborah Jean Templin troops on to stage as if carried by a Poppins-like wind and manages to terrorize all in her wake. Jeffrey Coon’s Mr. Banks, far from being delighted, flees for his very soul. Templin, meanwhile manages to do what no other performer accomplished, to bring Bryan’s production to a boil and have it command attention.

The Walnut “Mary Poppins” is fine. It will more than entertain, but it lacks a certain oomph that keeps it earthbound instead of soaring like one of Bert’s or Michael’s kites. Numbers go by pleasantly enough. The story, even the significant changes book writer, Julian Fellowes, makes from the movie, is clear. There are special effects of varying fascination, and there’s Matthew Bourne’s elaborately choreographed “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which is in itself a reward. Few delights, no matter how creative, lift this “Mary Poppins” up to the atmosphere. It’s as if a final bolt of energy has been denied it. You can see the production is good, but it doesn’t excite.

Then comes Templin’s Miss Andrew, and from the most unexpected place, there’s a power surge. Templin’s launches into Miss Andrew’s featured number, “Brimstone and Treacle,” and the Walnut stage comes to roaring life. The actress fills the stage with her threatening voice and more threatening moves and expressions.

Finally, a sequence takes off the way you have come to expect from a Walnut production. Templin puts a thrill in the air. Something dangerous and dramatic is happening, and everyone on and off-stage is responding to it. Looking like a well-kempt banshee, her palette all in grays and blacks, and wearing a blouse with pointed cap sleeves that wittily ties back to her coat, Templin swoops into her number. She resonates, and what is practically a throwaway scene shows all that is missing from “Mary Poppins” and all it could have been (and will become again with “Step in Time” and “Anything Can Happen”).

“Mary Poppins” needs the kind of boost Templin gives it. The actress transforms a brief but flashy turn into a memorable sequence that shows the fun of both theater and extreme characterization. By thunder, it was refreshing and reassuring. “Brimstone and Treacle” not only picked up the show, it infused Bryan’s second act with animation that carried the rest of the way, the aforementioned “Step in Time” aiding in that department.

Another scene that sets off a spark is one in which Neleus, a statue attached to park fountain, springs to life in the form of dancer Tyler Foy. Jane and Michael are surprised by the sudden litheness of what was a lump of stone the second before. But it isn’t the stunning aspect of Foy’s movement that makes the scene special. It’s Foy’s sweetness as Neleus, who reinforces the children’s impression of Mary Poppins as a wonder and who has a tender moment in which he tells the children he misses his father, Poseidon, posed by another fountain in a different section of the park.

Fathers are an important part of “Mary Poppins.” As Fellowes’s script and the recent movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” point out, P.L. Travers’s story centers more on George Banks than on his children or their “tricky” governess.

Bryan strays away from this intention. Coon’s Mr. Banks seems more of a peripheral than a key figure in this production, but the third scene that garners special notice is a simple book scene that involves George going about his daily business at the bank where he works.

George is constantly under pressure to make only profitable transactions. His superiors at the bank, particularly its chairman, will not tolerate even one instance of bad decision-making. George’s judgment is constantly on the line, and, professionally, he lives or dies by it.

On a day Mary Poppins capriciously, but cunningly, decides to take Jane and Michael to the bank to visit their father at work and see his office, George is beset by two customers whose propositions require a lot of consideration and stand to advance or ruin his future.

The scenes of George listening to the men seeking loans would seem to be dry ones, obligatory fillers that exist only to shore up Fellowes putting particular emphasis on Mr. Banks, whether Bryan does or not. Coon, though,is actor enough to give the scenes importance. His attentiveness to the bank’s clients make us listen, as does the sense he conveys of how crucial this scene is to George’s life and character. This example of who George is and what George does lives up to what Fellowes intends from it but also gives the Walnut audience something to watch that isn’t jerry-rigged to be grand or impressive.

Joined by Michael Warrell, as a German investor who wants the bank to finance a complex scheme involving thousands of stakeholders, and Christopher Shin, as a man who represents a small town that needs capital to build itself into a thriving mercantile center, Coon and company turn this scene into an interesting dramatic vignette. Shin is especially good at showing the sincerity in his character, and Coon, with acting skill and no magic, demonstrates how to make mundane exposition poignant.

The entrance of Mary Poppins and the Banks children interrupts, or divides, this scene, but the intrusion doesn’t matter because we’ve heard and enjoyed the parlays between George and his prospective customers. The felicity with which the passages involving Warrell and Shin played reinforces the cunningness of Mary Poppins’s strategy in timing her visit for that particular instance. The event is made warmer and more pointed when you realize it is a question from Jane that prompts George’s decisions.

This scene, besides being well-played, gives you Fellowes’s and Travers’s plan for “Mary Poppins” in a nutshell. As with Miss Andrew’s arrival, this sequence could be rushed through or pushed aside as a trifle, but in Bryan’s production, it is one of the most moving and best realized passages.

It is hard to earmark why the Walnut’s “Mary Poppins” doesn’t take off from the beginning. Bryan has been provided with all the elements he needs.

The smallness of the Walnut stage necessitates some economies, but J Branson’s set is bright enough, and the production has enough special effects to divert amusingly. David Elder is a likeable Bert who seems to enjoy the freedom his character has to break out into dance at the least provocation. Lindsey Bliven is spit-spot as Mary Poppins. Cameron Flurry and Jacob Wilner are lively enough as the Banks children. Coon, Rebecca Robbins as Mrs. Banks, and Mary Martello, as the housemaid and cook, Mrs. Brill, are brisk in their domesticity. One would think Elder, in particular, could spur the show into animation. But everything, even the magic, happens matter-of-factly. There no sense of wonder, or “how did they do that?” in Mary Poppins’s tricks. They are appreciated with a nod, but the don’t rate ah’s and ooh’s that should come when flowers, coat racks, and other things materialize from nowhere. Only Mary Poppins’s mysterious entrance and a torn rag doll coming to life-size proportion in “Playing the Game” create a frisson of Disney-like artistry afoot. It may be timing, it may be a familiarization with “Mary Poppins,” but effects don’t have sufficient zip.

Nor do dance numbers. The reason “Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious” is so effective is it involves a lot of synchronized arm motion and the spelling of the tongue-twisting caterpillar of a word in mime. This adds liveliness and variety to the proceedings. Also, Bliven and Ellie Mooney, set up the number well by having a decent book scene featuring Jane and Michael shopping in a “chat shop,” owned by Mooney’s Mrs. Corry, with Mary.

Some of the problem for the theatrical listlessness falls squarely on Fellowes’s shoulders.

While adapting “Mary Poppins” for the stage, Fellowes wisely preserved several of the key tunes from the 1964 movie, but he didn’t always provide natural set-ups that lead the to songs. Scenes that prompt “A Spoonful of Sugar,” various choruses of “Chim, Chim, Cher-ee,” and “Jolly Holiday,” seem contrived. They don’t quite spring out of nowhere, but they have either quick or awkward introductions that don’t proceed directly from the story or incident at hand. “A Spoonful of Sugar” is promulgated by a mishap in the kitchen that seems more self-consciously slapstick than comic in this production. You barely have time to settle into the scene when a song erupts. The familiar tunes are welcome, but they seem to have no meaning or purpose except as diversions.

“Jolly Holiday” properly takes place in the park, but it doesn’t feel as if it starts on any particular cue. It just materializes.

This inclusion, rather than smooth elision, of songs presents a challenge to a director of “Mary Poppins.” Richard Eyre even stumbled over it in the original London production of Fellowes’s script. The Broadway rendition and its national tour. also Eyre’s, seemed to solve the dilemma. Bryan has not totally made the songs seem like the next natural step to the story. Even “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” seems tortured into coming about. It doesn’t emerge from a place or a pretext that seems right.

You’ll notice the new songs, “Practically Perfect,” “Playing the Game,” and “Anything Can Happen” integrate better into the action that leads to them. Of the original songs, only “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “Step in Time” take off from a relatively smooth runway. Even “Feed the Birds,” done nicely by Bliven and Templin, seems squeezed in.

Once numbers are launched, they build in effect, but they lack the anticipation that gets the audience primed for a big musical sequence. One of the advantages of “Brimstone and Treacle” is you see it coming and are satisfied with why that song is in that place in the musical.

The suddenness of the songs makes “Mary Poppins” seem episodic rather than one solid piece. The second act gives Bryan and other directors a bit of a break because “Step in Time” and “Anything Can Happen” are extended and seem to come about naturally.

In thinking about Bryan’s work, I’ve come to the conclusion, perhaps my own fancy, that the director was trying to walk a middle ground among the choices for how to do “Mary Poppins.”

The 1964 Disney movie is light, magical, and fantastic. Using animation, it stresses the wonderful talents of Mary Poppins and the jauntiness of Bert. It creates a fairy tale world. David Tomlinson’s Mr. Banks appears, but he is not the focal character. Mary, Bert, and the Banks children dominate in addition to several characters played by Dick Van Dyke and Ed Wynn’s perpetually laughing uncle. The film is a jolly holiday.

The stage adaptation of “Mary Poppins” is more in keeping with Travers’s book. Mary is more austere and much more curt and sardonic in some of her responses to Jane, Michael, and Mr. Banks. The mood is darker. The children face consequences for neglecting their room or abusing their toys. “Playing the Game” is actually a softening of the “Temper, Temper” number that appeared in the London production and triggered protests from parents who thought it too frightening or harsh. It warns Jane and Michael the world will rebel against them if they remain insensitive to people’s feelings and inattentive to one’s responsibilities.

In doing the play, especially during a holiday season, a director has to decide between approaches. Does one accentuate the fluff while adding something about Mr. Banks’s dilemma to give a core of reality to the proceedings? Or does one show a household in disarray and a troubled man, warring against his own nature, struggling to get it right amid precocious children and wife who is not happy with rigid Edwardian conventions?

My, my, the difference is huge. If you choose the former, how do you lend it some gravity? Or do you bother? If you choose the latter, the more mature and truer option, how do you leaven it?

Fellowes, Eyre, Cameron Mackintosh and others who brought “Mary Poppins” to the theater in 2004 obviously preferred the more textured story. They concentrated their production on George Banks and gave Bourne’s choreography rein to elate the audience with its stunning creativity.

They also defied gravity as much as possible. In “Step in Time,” Gavin Lee’s Bert walked perpendicularly up walls and upside down from ceilings. Mary Poppins flew in for her entrance and floated past the proscenium to waft over the house and through a balcony portal for her exit. It was breathtaking stuff.

Few theaters are equipped to accommodate so many spectacular effects. The Walnut has Mary flying, but her entrance, remarkable in its own way, keeps her on the ground. Bert also stays upright on horizontal surfaces in “Step in Time.” Bryan and his choreographer, Linda Goodrich, have other tricks up their sleeves. (Goodrich sets all dances but “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”)

Bryan, as I noted, chose a middle route between lightness and gravitas. He doesn’t get so dark that “Mary Poppins” loses its appeal to children. Nor does he plumb the malaise in George’s soul, leaving the bank scenes mentioned earlier as the one glimpse of Mr. Banks as anything but the preoccupied and cranky man of his house.

I think this takes some of the tone and brightness away from “Mary Poppins.” Bryan’s production lacks personality. It has no center, the Banks children being the closest it comes to one. Musical numbers are active, but they don’t seem ambitious enough. Perhaps Bryan and Goodrich need to take more advantage of the charm and terpsichorean versatility of David Elder in the role of Bert.

Elder is the first person on stage, and I think he needs to motivated to be more presentational and grab the audience’s attention. The whole sequence featuring Cherry Tree Lane residents before we meet the Bankses is a tad slow, dull, and undefined. If that was pepped up, it might give “Mary Poppins” a faster, brighter start. Ellie Mooney, as a neighbor, Miss Lark, spends most of her scenes balancing a cute but large dog that gets audience approval but seems clumsy to lug back and forth and which hides Mooney’s face. Admiral Boom could be cut completely with no one being the wiser.

These first moments are critical. They establish a pace and a tone. They tell us whether “Mary Poppins” is going to be fun or sluggish. Time may cure the rhythm of the initial scenes, but Bryan needs to elicit more spirit from them.

When the curtain raises on the Banks living room, mayhem is afoot. This give a sense of confusion, but it is also confusing and needs definition, especially since you need to believe Mary Poppins is necessary and can make a difference. Also, we have to have an encouraging attitude towards Mrs. Banks when Rebecca Robbins sings her number about her expected duties and inherent worries, “Being Mrs. Banks.”

images (34)Almost all scenes in the first act need more zest in their introductory moments. The opening moments leading to “A Spoonful of Sugar” have to be funnier in spite of being predictable. There has to be more joy, or at least more curiosity or wonder on the face of the children as they approach the park, even if they are perplexed about Mary Poppins’s ideas about and play and games at that point. More thought has to go into making it clear exactly what happens in Mrs. Corry’s chat shop and why it leads to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” a point I think will be confusing to children (assuming they care about context and aren’t just excited by the number to come).

Bryan wants to entertain, but he hasn’t smoothed the transitions between scenes or the admittedly awkward moments between the beginning of a sequence and the musical number included in it.

I think a second more quickness here and a scooch more vivacity there will cure Bryan’s “Mary Poppins” of ills that don’t mar your general experience but keep the show from exuding the pep it needs. I nominate Elder as the key because Bert can be effusive in ways that Mary cannot. Part of being practically perfect is being pert and unexcitable. She can’t suddenly turn from being the calm, unruffled disciplinarian and authority on everything to an unreserved playmate. Bert has to be more of an emcee.

I don’t want to give the impression the Walnut “Mary Poppins” is dull or in any way unenjoyable. That would be misleading and unfair to the entertainment value achieved once dance numbers are underway. The production only needs small infusions of speed and energy to make it more vibrant and to hide the seams in Fellowes’s script.

Lindsey Bliven has almost military bearing as Mary Poppins. Her speech, movements, and even arm motions are crisp and precise in keeping with the nanny Travers describes in her books.

Bliven exudes self-control and reserve. She is never fussy and never looks as if Mary can be agitated or break a sweat. Even when she answers the children or Mr. Banks with a retort that says she never does “x” or hasn’t the remotest intention of accommodating their request, Bliven maintains Mary’s pertness while also showing how proud and amused Mary can be with herself.

Bliven’s singing is more than practically perfect. It’s excellent. She also dances well when called upon to join the party and kick up her heels or jump into a tap sequence. Her Mary is competent and without blemish. Bliven fulfills all of the show’s necessities, but she does not endear herself to the audience. You admire the character and the actress’s performance, but Bliven never captures your heart. It’s one of the casualties of Mary having to maintain some distance from emotions, but one it would be beneficial for Bliven to overcome.

David Elder does work his way into your affection as Bert, who is capable of doing anything and is everybody’s best friend. He is the one who plays with and placates the children. He is the one who seems able to get anyone to do his bidding. And he looks to have magic equal to Mary’s.

One thing I see happening in Bryan’s production is Bert having to establish himself each time he comes on stage. A sense of continuity is missing. You brighten when you see Elder because that usually means some light comedy or major league dancing is imminent. His appeal is why I think Elder’s Bert is the one who has to perk up the pace and give Bert even more personality, even if he has to go further in breaking the stage’s fourth wall to do it.

Jeffrey Coon is consistent as Mr. Banks. He is always bossy, critical, and overwhelmed with domestic and professional duties.

Coon’s performance follows the path Fellowes’s script etches so firmly on its pages. He is a preoccupied man, too busy reviewing household finances and making ends meet to be involved with his children or pay more than cursory attention to his wife.

George Banks models his behavior from that of his own father, a man he says he was lucky to see once a week. Coon’s George mistakes that dismissal of all but hard business as the way a man is supposed to act. He doesn’t believe it to be dignified for a father to go out and teach his son how to build or navigate a kite. He would rather his children be seen and not heard.

Coon maintains this singlemindedness well, even when it seems his George might be in a different play from the other characters. By staying the course, he shows George’s epiphany to be more genuine. Yes, Fellowes and Travers solve some of George’s cares in an instant, but because Coon has been so bound up in all of George’s seriousness and worries, his release from dire straits is more pleasing.

Winifred Banks doesn’t have a lot of range. She mostly frets about what it would take to please her husband and be the kind of wife he expects, especially since she has the stigma of once making her living as an actress. Rebecca Robbins is sincere in the part and sings Winifred’s anthem, which has nothing to do with suffragettes, well and affectingly.

Mary Martello lightens moments in her comic part as Mrs. Brill. Deborah Jean Templin plays several characters, most of them on and off the stage in a tick, but she gives them enough intensity that are noticed. Even her cameo as Queen Victoria has substance. Her portrayal of Miss Andrew and singing of “Brimstone and Treacle” steal the show for the period she’s on stage.

Cameron Flurry is a sly Jane. She doesn’t look like the kind of little girl who would be mischievous, but she is the sibling who cooks up all the plots that send her parents, Mrs. Brill, and Mary Poppins into a tizzy. Jacob Wilner has a way with line delivery as Michael. He does come across as a wild sort who would need some boundaries and lectures on occasion.

Bill Van Horn and Ellie Mooney do well in a variety of parts, Van Horn seeming appropriately cantankerous as the bank chairman, Mooney helping to get “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” launched.

George E. Mitchell’s does a fine job with costumes, especially his outfit for Miss Andrew. Paul Black’s lighting effects, especially the distraction he causes before Mary Poppins appears, add some magical touches to Goodrich’s numbers.

Linda Goodrich builds wave upon wave of motion once a dance number is in progress. This constant escalation provides the most energy this “Mary Poppins” musters. “Step in Time,” with its slow beginning and surging finish, including Mary in full tap, is the most spectacular of the numbers. “Anything Can Happen” grows into importance and gives Bryan’s staging a strong finish, one that when blended with reprises of other tunes, reaches the level of fun and excitement “Mary Poppins” needed all along.

The original songs adapted from the movie, “Mary Poppins” are by Richard and Robert Sherman. New tunes are by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

“Mary Poppins” runs through Sunday, January 4 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performances are scheduled for Thanksgiving, Nov, 27, Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, Christmas, Dec. 25, or New Year’s Day, Jan. 1. Shows are set for 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 22 and 29, and 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, Dec. 4, and Dec. 18 and Friday, Nov. 28 and Dec. 26. Tickets range from $95 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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