Fly Away, Mary Poppins

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

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.

At the Cort, Douglas Carter Beane’s play, like its neighbor, has shaped up noticeably since its Off Broadway debut a few months back. The cynical tale of a Hollywood agent named Diane (White) trying to keep her prize client (Tom Everett Scott) in the closet long enough to become a star is tighter and even more hilarious than before. Beane is admirably merciless in skewering these corroded people, who use and are used by one another—“Let’s be togetherish” passes for heartfelt sentiment here—but his play still seems thin as satire. A few days after seeing it, I didn’t find myself thinking about the corrupted world he depicts; the moral weight that ought to support the comic attack isn’t there. White’s performance, however, hits hard enough to leave marks.

Wheedling, vicious, desperate, pleased—no, delighted—with her schemes, Diane is a J. J. Hunsecker for the BlackBerry age. Better still, White extracts a hint of—not exactly sympathy, call it pathos—by giving Diane the wide, fixed smile of the damned. Over at Grey Gardens, Ebersole uses Little Edie’s soliloquies to confide in the audience, to win us by charm. For White, who also spends much of the evening talking to the crowd, the theatricality is just as immediate but much more sinister. She conspires, she disarms us, she brilliantly reels us in, as when she trashes a table full of colleagues for our amusement, even though she’s just as craven as they are. By the time she’s through, you’ll feel the brimstone in your pores.

From then on, oh, we still lived in a world of light and shadow, but the shadow was almost as luminous as the light,” runs one of the more lyrical lines of Tennessee Williams’s little gothic nightmare, Suddenly Last Summer. It’s spoken by Mrs. Venable, an elderly stroke victim with a “withered bosom” and claws for hands. All you need to know about the miscarriage of the Roundabout’s new revival of this play is that they’ve cast as their superannuated hag the cosmopolitan beauty Blythe Danner.

In fact, that’s all you need to know about a whole spate of Williams stagings lately. In the past four years, his three masterpieces—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, and A Streetcar Named Desire—have received major Broadway revivals. Each time, starry-eyed producers stuck ill-fitting celebrities into one plum role after another.

Beyond the radiant Danner, who lacks the monstrous quality needed to play Mrs. Venable, Mark Brokaw’s production also misuses Carla Gugino. She plays Catherine Holly, the niece whom Mrs. Venable would like to lobotomize in order to silence dark stories about the death of Venable’s son. Her account of that story, which takes up the last quarter of the play, features some lovely, hallucinatory writing. Gugino has real talent, but she can’t come up with the incantatory effect of Williams’s language. Without its lyricism, the play stands naked as a kind of Freudian soufflé. And the production, like so many Williams revivals before it, becomes just a lot of actors talking.

The something-old- something-new mix that makes up Mary Poppins is nowhere more obvious than in the songwriting. The Sherman brothers’ songs everyone knows from the 1964 movie are here, of course, as are freshly written songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. But one new number, “Practically Perfect,” is a little bit of each. Stiles and Drewe had sent the song to producer Cameron Mackintosh as their writing audition, and he passed it along to Robert Sherman—who, it turned out, had worked on a song by the same title 40-odd years before. (It was scrapped, back then, in favor of “A Spoonful of Sugar.”) This time around, both “Perfect” and “Sugar” made it into the show, and all egos remained intact.

Mary Poppins
Lyrics and music by Robert and Richard Sherman. Additional lyrics by Anthony Drewe and additional music by Drewe and George Stiles. Book by Julian Fellowes. New Amsterdam Theatre.

Les Misérables
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Broadhurst Theatre. Through April 22.

The Little Dog Laughed
By Douglas Carter Beane. Cort Theatre.

Suddenly Last Summer
By Tennessee Williams. Laura Pels Theatre. Through January 14.

Fly Away, Mary Poppins