By Ruth Ross
At age nine, while perusing the school library, I happened upon the Mary Poppins books and was hooked. I recall reading each volume of the series, often more than once, entranced by the tale of a governess who appears from time to time to help dysfunctional families find their way to happiness. I reveled in her crisp, no-nonsense demeanor, her demand that everything be done “spit spot” and her willingness to take on even the most formidable person—even a man! What a role model!
Well, I didn’t become a nanny, but many of her pronouncements came back to me when I became a mother. My daughters didn’t read the books (too old-fashioned for their tastes, I guess), but they did enjoy the 1964 Disney film, and my granddaughters loved the Broadway musical, which I never got to see.
That deficiency has been remedied, I am pleased to report, with the Paper Mill Playhouse’s final production of the season, a magical, highly entertaining, effervescent rendition of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Starring the deliciously beguiling Elena Shadow (above left) as Mary and an irrepressible, agile Mark Evans as Bert, this production is truly a “jolly holiday with Mary” for people of all ages, from seven to 77!
The Banks family is in trouble. The bratty kids, Jane and Michael, have sabotaged the sixth nanny in the last four months; their father George is a workaholic banker with little time or inclination to spend time with his family; and mother Winifred, a former actress, is finding being Mrs. Banks rather intimidating. Enter Mary Poppins, flying in with her umbrella aloft, her feet turned out and her carpet bag full of unimaginable goodies (above). Within a running time of two and a half hours, she disciplines the kids (with a spoonful of sugar to make it all go down), humanizes George and makes Winifred feel important, all while romancing Bert, the chimney sweep whose hand brings luck to all who shake it. Oh, there are some glitches in the narrative: George almost loses his job because of a decision he’s impulsively made, and his former nanny, the horrid Miss Andrew has to be dealt with, but in the end it all turns out “spit spot,” and all is right with the world.
Modern audiences take film’s special effects—most of them computer generated—for granted, but those engineered onstage at the Paper Mill Playhouse (designed by Jim Steinmeyer and Robert Ramirez) elicited delighted gasps from the opening night audience, as did the lighting design by Charlie Morrison, the scenic design by Timothy R. MacKabee and the costumes designed by Leon Dobrowski. Mark S. Hoebee’s inspired direction re-imagines the show for the playhouse stage; several people who had seen the Broadway version were “blown away” by this one. And Denis Jones is to be commended for his energetic, whimsical and totally original choreography; the Irish step-dancing elements executed by the chimney sweeps in “Step in Time” are a special treat.
A luminous Elena Shaddow (below) is “practically perfect” as Mary Poppins, arriving sans references, dictating the terms of her employment with aplomb and charming the bratty kids into prompt obedience. She’s got a lovely voice and executes the dance steps in a ladylike manner. Although tiny, she confronts the battleship Miss Andrews (played with terrifyingly evil enthusiasm by a terrific Liz McCartney) and brings her to an untimely (and unexpected) end. She’s well matched by Mark Evans as Bert; whenever he’s onstage, it’s hard to take an eye off him! His superb dancing ability is on full view in the intricately choreographed “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number and the forementioned “Step in Time” (above). And did I mention that he can sing, too?
Abbie Grace Levi (Jane in the Sunday performance) and John Michael Pitera (Michael; right, with Shaddow) are appropriately bratty little monsters, but are butter in Mary Poppins’ hands. They manage to speak in a consistent British accent, although I had trouble understanding Pitera’s speech. Perhaps if he slowed down and the sound were adjusted, he might be more easily understood. Adam Monley’s cold, officious George Banks is easy to dislike at first and all the more easy to warm to once we understand more about his upbringing by Miss Anderson. His rendition of “A Man Has Dreams” goes a long way to humanizing the character. As Winifred, Jill Paice nicely expresses her dilemma in “Being Mrs. Banks” as she attempts to assume the role George expects from her.
As the servants Miss Brill and Robertson Ay, Dierdre Eriel and Blakely Slaybaugh have some funny bits; he’s especially adept at physical humor, but I had some trouble understanding her dialogue from time to time. And Danielle K. Thomas lends a flamboyant Jamaican flair to Mrs. Corry, seller of words and conversation. The rest of the ensemble performs with an obvious gaiety that infuses the entire theater auditorium.
It may cost more than tuppence to buy a ticket for Mary Poppins, but I guarantee that the production is worth every cent. With the weather outside rather gray and dreary, this musical with a book by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) and music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman will lift your spirits and make your heart sing. Grab the kids and grandma, and get on over to Brookside Drive in Millburn before the final performance on June 25. It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, for sure!
Mary Poppins will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through June 25. For information, performance times and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.7676 or visit www.papermill.org online.