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Mary Poppins – Los Angeles Theater Review 

 

FEWER SPOONFULS OF SUGAR – AND IT GOES DOWN A WHOLE LOT BETTER

 

picture - Mary PoppinsTheater Review

by John Topping

published November 29, 2009

 

Mary Poppins

now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre

through February 7, 2010 

 

Stage and Cinema did not review the New York Broadway production of Mary Poppins that opened in 2006 (and which is still going strong); but we briefly had a section called “Kwik Reviews,” comprised of 1-sentence summaries of shows that had been seen but not formally reviewed.  My Kwik Review of Mary Poppins was: “Contains three full minutes of entertainment, with an additional 2 hours, 37 minutes of dreck thrown in at no extra charge!”  Those three minutes consisted of Gavin Lee as Bert, who walked up the side of the stage, danced across the ceiling, and then walked back down the other side; and the moment when Ashley Brown as Mary Poppins opens her umbrella and floats away over the audience into the nether-reaches of the upper balcony.  (Lee and Brown have both returned to their roles for this production.)  It would have perhaps been more fair to say that up to ten minutes were entertaining, as the song “Step in Time” was extremely well done.  But that was pretty much it.

 

The problem was that it had opened in London with the distinction of having strayed significantly from the movie and gone into the kinds of dark places that Walt Disney never would have approved of.  That was what I’d been looking forward to seeing in New York.  But then the bad news was announced:  the British version had been watered down for American audiences.  Too many children, it was surmised, would leave the theater confused and crying from seeing a Mary Poppins that wasn’t sugar-coated enough.  What was left after the transformation was bland, bland, bland, among the worst evenings of theater I’ve ever seen.  So many tourists did I try to warn away from it, but they went anyway, only to come back and say, “You told me so.”  The duty of seeing it again in Los Angeles was approached with dread.  It seemed a foregone conclusion that it would be a long, wasted evening.

 

picture - Mary PoppinsBut then something unexpected happened after the lights went down.  One of the lines made me laugh out loud.  That certainly didn’t happen in New York.  A few minutes later, I laughed at another line.  And then again.  It soon dawned on me that I was enjoying myself, and I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong.  Then it hit me – here in the land of the allegedly cryogenically-frozen Walt Disney himself, we were being presented with the British version of Mary Poppins.  Everything that had been ripped out was now reinserted.  In case of any doubt, a moment with a small explosion of British flags confirmed my suspicions.  That would never play in America.  It was a struggle to match up any memory at all of Broadway with what I was seeing.  Eventually I did, but for the longest time it seemed to have no connection whatsoever, other than the same characters. 

 

I’m stopping short of suggesting that you run out and buy tickets.  It’s still not a must-see.  Bob Crowley’s cumbersome sets once again make it a clunky show with scenery-changing noise that can be heard in the back of the theater.  You may or may not take to the mixture of classic songs from the film by the Sherman Brothers blended with brand new songs written just for the stage by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  But if I meet anyone who is interested in seeing this particular production, I will no longer do everything in my power to stop them from wasting their money and time. 

 

From where I sat, it’s a rather unbalanced evening.  (Actually, where I literally sat during Act II was the last row of the theater, so I could sit up comfortably with my long torso;  it turns out that the blessing of going to it in New York was that I saw Gavin Lee dance on the ceiling, because from the back row of the Ahmanson, I could only see him begin to walk up and then finish coming back down.)  Mary Poppins is not the enchanting governess you’re used to seeing as played by Julie Andrews.  Here, she’s actually sort of a … well, a bitch.  She’s arrogant and condescending and seems a bit untrustworthy.  Being taken by her for a stroll in the park, where oh such extraordinary things begin to happen, is less about giving in to the magic that surrounds her than worrying that she might have slipped something psychedelic into the children’s tea.  She can be downright creepy.  But that’s a fun take (whether or not it’s truer to the spirit of the book, I don’t know).  However, in absorbing this darker Mary Poppins, it becomes confusing reconciling her with the happy, bubbly moments that stay true to the movie.  Supercalifragiwhatthehellisgoingonhere??!!!

 

picture - Mary PoppinsStill, I’ll gladly take this imbalance over the New York show that tries to cash in on the title’s built-in audience without giving any theater in return.  And, by the way, none of the children in the audience were significantly damaged by the darkness.  Turns out kids are made of tougher stuff, at least on the West Coast.

 

As delightful a surprise as it was to be as entertained, it must be emphasized that the delight may all be due to its being such an utterly vast improvement over the New York show; a case of expectations so low that anything halfway decent seems brilliant.  Either way, this is a rarity in the theater – a post-Broadway production done in Los Angeles that is unquestionably and infinitely superior to the Broadway production in New York.

 

johntopping @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 

 
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