If you want to see Mary Poppins at the Hippodrome, you should probably buy your tickets now. If the press night is any indication, they will be selling out fast. And not without reason. It’s possibly the most hight anticipated show of their season. For one thing, you can bring the kids! And the kids that night did love it. It’s a very good show, but not without disappointments. But let’s talk about the good stuff first.
The singing is excellent throughout the show. The voices are strong and clear, including the children, in this performance played by Cherish Myers and Zach Timson. Co-choreographers Stephen Mear and Matthew Bourne are brilliant and the actors make their brilliance shine even more. The chorus is full of amazing dancers. Case Dillard, who plays Bert, is a joy to watch when he dances.
Rachel Wallace is “practically perfect in every way” as the titular Mary Poppins. I never thought I’d be able to see anyone but Julie Andrews in the role, but Ms. Wallace has exactly the right amount of supreme yet casual confidence, without every crossing the line into arrogance. She is strong enough to carry the show, but she never overwhelms the story or the other characters.
Also giving “spot on” performances are Michael Dean Morgan and Elizabeth Broadhurst as Mr. And Mrs. Banks. Mr. Banks carries the weight of the world on his shoulders while holding emotions—and therefore, his family—at a distance. Mrs. Banks works hard at being the mother and wife a 1910 Englishwoman is expected to be.
But the show has some major problems. To start with, the whole thing just seems overdone. It’s as though director Richard Eyre was trying too hard. Many of the characters border on caricatures, the children are too cute, and too many of the songs are huge production numbers.
Few people know this, but Mary Poppins did not begin as a book, but rather, a series of books. The play pulls in elements from all the books that were not in the movie, such as dancing statues and gingerbread stars.
Some other changes involve the librettist, songwriters, and musical director trying to update the story. That’s kind of like updating The Wizard of Oz. You just don’t do it; it’s a classic. Now, if you’re going to go in a whole new direction with it, like the The Wiz, that’s one thing. But that’s not what they did.
As a result, some of the musical arrangements are too modern. They seem a bit at odds with the whole flavor of the story. And we are, presumably, more aware and sensitive in the 21st century than we were in 1964, so we have to explain how poor Mr. Banks became so distant and cold. But you know what? Trust your actors. Cast good people and let them tell the story. They’ll show you the strength hiding in Mrs. Banks and the sensitive, loving father Mr. Banks longs to be. These two actors would have handled it just fine, had they been given the chance.
But no, we must introduce a new character to show. Now, Miss Andrew does exist, in book two, but she isn’t identified as George’s old nanny until the final book in the series, which was written—believe it or not—in 1988. That’s who she is in the play, though, and she is on stage just long enough to show us poor little Georgie didn’t have a chance. But to bring her in, we’ve got to get rid of Mary Poppins. And then we have to bring her back to get rid of Bad Nanny. Again, all these events do happen, somewhere in the series, but not the way it’s done here. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is they just don’t handle it very well here. It’s way too contrived, it doesn’t work.
However—and this is a big however—it was worth it all to hear Q. Smith sing the role. Oh, my gosh! What an instrument the woman has. At one point she does a Victor/Victoria–like slide that had be over three octaves, and she had strength, clarity, and control through the entire range. A little later, she hit a beautiful, controlled E above high C. Well, it might have been higher than that, but as a soprano myself, I know it was at least an E. Ms. Smith is the sort of singer who impresses you with her skill even if you know nothing about the skills involved in singing.
As for Bert, Mr. Dillard is very talented, but he doesn’t really pull it off. While Mary Poppins carries the show, Bert’s the one who holds it together. He’s the glue, he guides us from one scenario into the next, vastly different, one. But he didn’t. It just wasn’t believable, for instance, that he’s the one the kids would run to for help and protection. I hasten to add that I am not the only one of that opinion. When I’m reviewing a show, I talk to other playgoers at intermission, and this was the consensus.
The real standout of the show, though, was Bob Crowley’s set. It was, well, magical. Large buildings and gardens and such appear out of nowhere, and go right back there as new ones appear. Howard Harrison’s lighting design contributes greatly to the illusion. You’re looking at a grayish sort of building, then there’s a tree, and then this brightly-colored garden of huge flowers simply appears in front of your eyes. As does Mary Poppins, by the way. The song ended and she was just there. Out of nowhere.
And the chimney sweeps’ dance. The play can’t cut from rooftop to rooftop the way the movie can, but it did something just as good. Bert danced up the side of the stage, across the top, and back down. Mr. Dillard really made it work, too.
Now, this is the worst news I can give you about the stage show: “I Love To Laugh” wasn’t in it! No tea party on the ceiling!
Here’s the bottom line: Kids and others under 30 loved it. But if you’re over 40, you’re probably going to be disappointed. We grew up on the movie and that’s what we’re looking for. And after the genius of The Lion King, we think that’s what we were going to get. Alas, it is not so. Make your decisions accordingly. But if you want to see it, as I said, buy your tickets now.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 min. with one intermission.
Mary Poppins plays through May 6, 2012 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 410-547-7328, or purchase them online.