News Column

'Mary Poppins' takes off at the Muny

July 26, 2013

YellowBrix

July 26--There are lots of eye-catching moments in "Mary Poppins," the show that just opened at the Muny. Here's a favorite: Two children manage, in no time flat, to destroy the family kitchen right before a tea party. Horrors! Fortunately their nanny, a woman of vague but distinctly magic powers, is right behind them.

In a jiffy, the pantry shelves are realigned, the dishes return to their places unbroken, and the contrite children are pushing brooms -- while singing!

Don't we all want Mary Poppins to work at our houses? Or at least set designer Michael Schweikardt, who affords us this glimpse of domestic paradise?

The young theater-goers at the Muny's annual children's show may prefer some of the other effects, particularly the dramatic closing moments. That's when Mary Poppins (Jenny London) flies away from the stage and over the audience.

Depending on your disposition, it's exhilarating or terrifying -- but it sure makes an impression.

Yes, Mary Poppins flies in other productions of this musical, written by Julian Fellowes (lately of "Downton Abbey" fame. The original songs from the hit Disney movie are by Richard M. Sherman and Robert M. Sherman; the new, decidedly weaker numbers are by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.) But those productions are staged inside, at theaters with ceilings.

When you look up and see Powers "flying" against the actual night sky, it really doesn't matter if you can see that she's attached to a harness (which you can. You can also see equipment every time an actor flies over the stage.) At that moment, her "powers" are pretty persuasive.

So is her voice, a lovely instrument -- elegant in "A Spoonful of Sugar," juicy when she leads a dazzling treatment of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Coordinated as precisely as a halftime show, members of the colorfully costumed ensemble repeatedly hold up big, one-letter placards to spell out the long word. Each time, it looks as if it should have been impossible.

Then choreographer Alex Sanchez tops things off with big loop through the audience. With the lavish support of music director Michael Horsley, director Gary Griffin uses the number to give Act One a memorable "finale" -- and one that arrives early enough for even very young theater-goers to enjoy.

Still, the show may baffle a lot of children as it chugs through the story of a proper nuclear family in Edwardian London. Since few children today are apt to be acquainted with middle-class family dynamics in the early twentieth century, who knows they make of the father's struggle for warmth and the mother's for individuality? But the parents (Stephen Buntock and Erin Dilly, married in real life) give appealing performances, and they aren't the only ones.

Besides Powers, there's lots of good character work from favorite St. Louis performers Zoe Vonder Haar (the cook), James Anthony (the father's boss) and Laura Ackermann (who sings a touching rendition of "Feed the Birds.") As the children, Elizabeth Teeter (who is from St. Louis) and Aidan Gemme reprise their Broadway performances with aplomb and topnotch dance moves; they're both adorable.

And then there's Rob McClure, who captivated Muny audiences earlier this summer as the hilariously evil Lord Farquaad in "Shrek." That time he was a terrific dancer without rising from his knees; this time, he shows us how lithely charming he is on his feet.

McClure plays Mary's friend Bert, a chimney sweep who performs the haunting "Chim Chim Cher-ee." It won the 1964 Oscar for best song, and deserves more of a reprise than it gets here.

That's part of the problem with the show. It's understandable if effects are cut back because of physical constraints; for example, Bert can't do an upside-down tap dance if there's nothing to hang him from. (If you never saw the show before, you won't miss it. If you did, content yourself with the memory.)

But onstage, "Mary Poppins" stretches itself thin at the expense of its built-in strengths. The show needs less psychological insight about dad and more kites soaring in "Let's Go Fly a Kite." It needs less of the predictable "Anything Can Happen" and more stars in the stage depiction of the sky. It needs more "Muny moments."

But in its strongest musical numbers, the show matches the scale of the theater. So did Thursday's opening-night audience. Between the gorgeous weather and the popular title, the opening night audience was the biggest of the season, over 10,000 people.

"Mary Poppins"

When--Nightly at 8:15 through Aug. 2

Where--The Muny in Forest Park

How much--$12-$80, plus the free seats

More info--314-534-1111; metrotix.com

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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