See what I did there? It’s “ultra”. One step up from “super”. Take that, Mary Poppins!
Which brings me to the topic here: Mary Poppins, the stage musical, which we were lucky enough to see live at Shea’s Buffalo a couple of weeks ago. (Thanks to tickets provided by the lovely Jennifer Smith, who always manages to make the magic happen!)
I love going to see shows and we don’t get to see nearly enough of them, so I was excited to go to this one. I haven’t been in Shea’s in seven years — last time was for a play The Daughter’s preschool class attended — and before that, not since 1999 when we went to see Phantom of the Opera. That’s too long. Now, some of that time, we didn’t even live in Buffalo, and other times, finances made going to see shows about as possible as launching ourselves to Mars. Nowadays, though, going to Shea’s to see a show or two isn’t off the table as an option. (If only there would be a full-scale touring revival of Les Miz…!)
But as excited as I was, I was also a bit nervous about this one. Mary Poppins is one of my favorite Disney films of all, and while it’s rightly seen as a classic, it tends to be seen as more of a classic family or children’s movie than one of the truly great movie musicals, which is what it is (in addition to the other things). I was somewhat fearful of the translation of a beloved movie to the stage.
For the most part, though, this fear was laid aside. The stage show, it turns out, is not a simple transposition of movie to stage show with a couple of new numbers inserted; instead, it goes its own way at several points. The film was, after all, merely based on a series of children’s books written in the 1920s; thus, the stage show was able to retain quite a few of the movie’s best songs, but was also able to incorporate the new ones by using material from the source books that the film didn’t. This made for a show that was both familiar and different.
The bare bones of the story is the same: a well-to-do — but not rich — family in London is in need of a nanny for its two nice, well-meaning, but not terribly well-behaved children. Nannies have apparently come and gone, but it’s not until a very special nanny comes along that the kids meet their match. That nanny’s name is Mary Poppins, and she’s the type of nanny who makes entrances by flying in on the handle of her umbrella and toting around a satchel that contains things like six-foot-tall coat racks. Mary takes quick charge of the kids, showing them somehow that cleaning one’s room can be fun (no, I’ve never bought into her logic on this one, either) and showing them around London where they have some very odd adventures.
Along the way — and this is the real point of departure from the movie — we get a good look at the trials and tribulations of the parents, George and Winifred, both of whom are having existential struggles of their own. George is worried about providing for his family, while Winifred is worried about her role as the mother. George works at the bank, as in the film and books, where he suffers flashes of idealism but often buckles down before authority. Frankly, a lot of this material struck me as being fairly dull, and I would have preferred the more whimsically odd bank of the film, where young Michael inadvertently causes a run on the bank and where the story’s ultimate moment of epiphany comes from a humorless character suddenly getting a joke. Unfortunately, that joke (“I once met a man with a wooden leg named Smith.” “What’s the name of his other leg?”) is not in the stage show. Nor is the wonderful sequence involving Uncle Albert, a man who laughs so much that he levitates to the ceiling when he laughs and then can’t get down.
The stage show blends many of the wonderful songs from the film with a more modernized kind of storyline, occasionally with odd results. When young Michael opines of one particularly nasty nanny that “She probably ate her young”, it was a funny line — but it also had me thinking, “Oh, come now, no kid in Victorian England is going to talk like that.” The denouement of that particular storyline — when George’s earlier decision to give a loan to a guy who looks like a waste of money turns out to have been a brilliant business decision — felt so predetermined as to seem almost fake. It had none of the effectiveness of George’s epiphany in the film, when he loses his job at the bank and realizes that his family is more important, anyway. I really missed how “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is transformed from the number where George finally plays with his children, into a number for Bert the chimneysweep.
Also, the complex lyrics of the original songs (by the amazing Sherman Brothers) occasionally seem out-of-place in a more modern type of story as this. I kept thinking of the first song of the film, in which Winifred sings of her work as a suffragette. Of course, would kids these days even know what a suffragette was? Probably not. But the show’s setting suffers a bit, thus.
Technically, though, Mary Poppins works wonderfully. I loved the set design, with the Banks house looking like a giant dollhouse that literally opens up to fill the stage, and other stage effects such as the scene changes that take place as seamlessly as any I can remember. The two show-stopping numbers — “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Step In Time” — both brought the house down, and my favorite Mary Poppins song, “Feed the Birds”, survived the translation to stage just beautifully. Another number, taking place in a London park and involving naked Greek statues come to life, was — well, I found it a bit distracting, because from my balcony seat, I kept thinking, “Is that statue really naked? Is there a guy wearing a costume with a marble phallus really dancing around on the stage right now?!”
(Oh, come on. If you saw the show, you were thinking it, too!)
The focus is on the Sherman Bros. songs, while the new songs (“Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen” among them) work nicely enough. But there’s never any mystery as to what we really want to hear, is there?
As for Shea’s Buffalo itself, well, it’s such a beautiful theater. Just a wonderful place. I love the ambience, the ornate atmosphere, the pre-show music on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, everything about it. Although I did think that the concessions folks, selling candy and soft drinks during intermission, missed an opportunity to tie in their wares to the feature attraction. Wouldn’t you agree that when selling M&Ms at a theater where Mary Poppins is playing, the price should be “tuppence a bag”?