The touring production of the Sherman Brothers' musical sensation "Mary Poppins," which is currently playing at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center through Sunday, is an entrancing truly one-of-a-kind theater experience that should not be passed over.
Based on P.L. Travers' book of the same name, "Mary Poppins" tells the story of the Banks, a disordered English family at the turn of the 20th century in desperate need of a new nanny to care for the children of the family.
The wind sweeps in the very confident and organized Mary Poppins to bring order back into the Banks' lives. While the older children, Jane and Michael, are in Mary's charge, they are taken on some very fantastic journeys and also learn some valuable lessons about contributing to the human race with kindness and respect instead of selfishness. Mr. and Mrs. Banks also learn how to better handle and care for their children and that family should be the most important thing in their lives.
Caroline Sheen, a Welsh actress, brings gentility and grace as well as an air of unshakable confidence to her Mary Poppins and making the nanny very likable as a person. Sheen's lovely singing voice greatly compliments her characterization as well.
Nicolas Dromard's Bert is very charming and loveable. Dromard's energy is remarkable throughout but is particularly captivating in his high-energy dance scenes. Dromard's most astounding moment is his dance routine in the "Step in Time" number. During the scene, Dromard, while being held up by a harness, walks and dances around the entire perimeter of the arch of the set.
Blythe Wilson plays Mrs. Banks. She isn't a suffragette here but an actress who has been coerced by Mr. Banks into devoting her time to the uncomfortable role of housewife and hostess. She played the role with a subtle dignity and tenderness and gave each of her songs a great amount of passion. Michael Dean Morgan's authoritative and complex George Banks is consistently compelling.
The young actors portraying the unruly Banks children brought unique and full-bodied personalities to their roles.
Tremendous performances also are given by British actress Rachel Izen as the Banks' take-charge servant Mrs. Brill, Dennis Moench as the nervous yet willing-to-help servant Robertson Ay, Mary VanArsdel as the Bird Woman, Michael McCarty as Admiral Boom and Q. Smith as Miss Andrew, the "holy terror" of a nanny brought in to care for the children when Mary leaves for a time.
Along with the wonderful performances given by all the actors, the physical atmosphere of the production also is an awe-striking experience. The set utilizes technologically dazzling tricks, like the Banks' house that unfolds like a dollhouse. Bert's pavement portraits come to life with brilliant colors from the seemingly otherwise gray and gloomy surroundings, and the inside of the bank with its black and white tones and realistic grand clock and columns that stand out and draw the audience in. Other amazing effects include Mary's classic carpet bag; the way in which Mary, Bert and the children slide through the chimney up to the roof of the Bank's house; and let's not forget about Mary's flying scenes!
In many ways this production is not the "Mary Poppins" that many will be expecting. While it still is a fun and joyous experience, there are many sobering lessons that are taught to both children and adults and solemn circumstances used to teach those lessons. Children are urged most importantly to learn how to respect others, to be helpful to humankind and pursue their dreams. Adults are advised to remember the innocence of their childhood, and to remember what really matters in life - in this case family and supporting the good in your fellow man.
Other notable changes are to the score itself. Several new songs have been written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and several of the original songs have been omitted. However beloved songs such as "Feed the Birds," "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and, of course, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" remain.
The order in which some of these songs appear in the production have changed as well as some of their contexts. For instance, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" takes place in "Mrs. Corry's Conversation Shop."
A number of new situations and characters are present as well, but I would much rather that you experience the wonder that is "Mary Poppins" for yourself because the experience truly defies description.
(Sarah Reed is theater critic for Weekender.)