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Fly Away, Mary Poppins

Rent the movie instead. Plus: Skip Les Mis, Part Deux, in favor of an acting tour de force.

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Illustration by Sean McCabe  

The second-biggest surprise of Mary Poppins, the stage version of Disney’s classic film, is that I give a damn about Mary Poppins. I didn’t care about the movie as a kid and haven’t seen it since, yet now, confronted by the monumental adaptation at the New Amsterdam, I’ve begun to adore its quirky tunes and slightly daffy personality. Certainly that’s what Disney and co-producer Cameron Mackintosh intended when they lavished millions on its flying sets and huge cast. But I doubt they wanted those warm feelings to make me resent what they’ve done to the film. Not having thought about dancing penguins in twenty years, I am now offended that there aren’t any here. And no flying carousel horses? Come on!

In retrospect, what’s distinctive about the film is the way it blends these beautifully whimsical flourishes with a twist of melancholy. There’s no good reason why a candy-colored Edwardian fantasy should include “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” which has the Gallic bittersweetness of a chanson, but the combination gives the film charm, and plenty of it. On Broadway, while the stage magic is really astonishing (if clumsily deployed, blowing most of its best tricks in first ten minutes), there’s no charm to speak of. Next to the Sherman brothers’ songs from the film, the new tunes are mere second-rate Broadway, with lyrics too vapid to quote. Matthew Bourne’s dances are proficient but curiously joyless, the exception being a tap number for Bert (Gavin Lee) that has a flourish too good to give away. Then there’s the flying nanny herself. Unable to make Mary really lovable beneath her starch—the secret of Julie Andrews’s performance—the talented newcomer Ashley Brown exposes Mary as what her detractors have always said: a pushy and undependable saccharine junkie.

But these are all problems of execution, and the show’s real slipup is in design. The biggest surprise of Mary Poppins—I can’t believe I’m typing this—is that Disney has tried too hard to make a serious musical. The stage version delves more deeply than the film into the domestic troubles of the Banks home. This being a Disney story, you know from the start that Dad’s job anxiety and Mom’s life frustrations are just setting you up for a huggy Spielbergian finale. But what are the maniac toys from Shockheaded Peter doing marauding around the nursery, menacing little Michael and Jane? Since when does anybody care about what goes on at Dad’s looming, vaguely Masonic bank?

Sir Richard Eyre’s production looks like the latest sign of a creeping British approach to stagecraft, which insists on finding the dark reality at the heart of every story, no matter how innocent, bubble-headed, and/or American. When it arrives here, Billy Elliot will show how the approach can pay off, but that’s an exception to a trend I wish would cease. You can re-imagine our classic musicals and you can interfere with our great plays, but for pity’s sake, let the penguins be.

The return of Les Misérables to Broadway after a three-year absence is like an RSVP from someone you’d hoped would be out of town. If A Chorus Line now seems like the ancestor of tell-all reality TV, this is the not-quite-opera that spawned American Idol. With its downstage-center belting, it’s noisy; with its 1,000-plus pages of source material, it’s endless; and with a relentless need to stimulate, it’s exhausting. (At least it’s with us only until April. So we’re told.)

Unless you’re one of its die-hard fans—a group much larger than I’d thought—Les Mis now seems interesting mainly on sociological grounds. Though it’s been only nineteen years since the show reached Broadway, the unironic tone makes the spectacle seem closer to Errol Flynn’s time than to our own. Consider the moment when Jean Valjean (Alexander Gemignani, going for the full bewhiskered heroics of the role, with nary a twitch of self-consciousness) assumes a wide wrestler’s stance, squaring off against Inspector Javert (Norm Lewis, who’s surprisingly insubstantial here), the better to hurl counterpoint melodies at one another.

There’s no shame in a little sincerity, of course: If you have a pulse, the show’s anthems are bound to quicken it now and then. And there’s fine work from the supporting cast, particularly Aaron Lazar, as the rousing leader of the student rebellion, and young Brian D’Addario, who shows a precocious charisma as the street urchin Gavroche (he’s one of three actors in the role). But there’s no way this compensates for having “Master of the House” lodged in my brain for the next six months.

Without warning, West 48th Street has become the center of the acting universe. Just west of Times Square, Christine Ebersole continues to astonish audiences as Little Edie Beale in Grey Gardens. Now, to the east, Julie White is giving a performance nearly as great in The Little Dog Laughed.


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