Mary Poppins is back and she’s kicking butt.
The Arts Club first mounted the musical in 2013 and they’ve been reviving it as holiday entertainment intermittently since then. This latest iteration is as strong as the first.
The stage musical is significantly different from the 1964 movie, although the basic story, which is set in Victorian London, remains the same. Mary, a magical nanny, flies in on the wind to help stabilize the financially prosperous but emotionally struggling Banks family—essentially by opening the heart of George Banks, the father, to the needs and love of his young children, Jane and Michael.
That said, the theatrical incarnation, which premiered in 2004, adheres more closely to P.L. Travers’ original story in which Mary has more bite than Walt Disney and Julie Andrews gave her. In the wrong hands, this angle can make Mary look sour. To give you an idea of how far that can go, the full stage musical includes “Playing the Game”, a nightmarish number in which Mary brings the children’s toys to life to teach them a lesson about taking proper care of their possessions.
Rest assured, however: the Arts Club has always cut “Playing the Game”. And, in this year’s mounting, Kayla James, who is playing Mary for the first time, finds a delicious mix of the tart and the sweet in the character. In earlier versions, Sara-Jeanne Hosie softened the book’s characterization with her charismatic warmth. It was a winning performance, but James stays truer to the script and her approach works equally well. James’s Mary can be imperious, conniving, and vain—but you never lose track of the nanny’s underlying wisdom and kindness. Watching James’s performance, I understood Mary as a truly magical figure—and I realized that the best magic always has an element of danger and unpredictability about it. James sings like a lark, too, and she is a spot-on dancer.
It’s also a pleasure to welcome Milo Shandel in his first appearance as George, the dad. There’s a serious weight to Shandel’s performance that grounds the evening, and a credible unavailability that gives the other characters a wall to storm.
Delivering young Michael’s outrageous lines with absolute sincerity—asked if he wouldn’t miss his father if he hardly ever saw him, Michael replies, “I’d have to think about that”—Glen Gordon is ridiculously charming. And, playing Jane, Elizabeth Irving hits all the right notes, both literally and figuratively.
On opening night, Bobby Callahan stood in for Shane Snow as Robertson Ay, the Banks’s butler and he triumphed, delivering an openhearted, freewheeling portrait.
Catriona Murphy is still perfection as the mom, Winifred Banks. Murphy’s voice is as warm as wine and her emotional characterization is, if anything, deepening. When Michael tells his mom that his father described her as being “neither use nor ornament”, it’s like watching somebody getting hit in the stomach and trying to pretend they’re fine.
Scott Walters, who plays Bert, the sometimes chimney sweep, charms without overplaying it.
Especially in “Step in Time”, Valerie Easton’s choreography makes you want to kick your own heels up, Alison Green’s painted backdrops are lavish, and Sheila White’s costumes sumptuous.
The sum total is a solid—though pricey—family show.
MARY POPPINS Based on the stories P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes. New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. An Arts Club Theatre production directed by Bill Millerd. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, December 7. Continues until January 1.
Get tickets by phoning 604-687-1644 or at http://artsclub.com/tickets/