At Kennedy Center, 'Poppins' Cleans Up House

Sheen and Lee perform “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” ©Disney/CML.
Joan Marcus
Sheen and Lee perform “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” ©Disney/CML.

Call me sentimental, call me plebian, call me irresponsible, call me a sucker for flying nannies, if not nuns.

I am not in the least embarrassed to admit that I really, really enjoyed myself at a recent performance of “Mary Poppins,” the Cameron Mackintosh Disney musical now ensconced at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through August 22. And at my age — why, any self-respecting 40-year-old theater critic would drum me out of the ranks. Luckily, I’m older than that, like 10 going on … well, you know.

For many critics, it’s easy to flaunt the smug gene when merely confronted with the name Disney, let alone by a musical that insists that “just a spoonful of sugar will make the medicine go down,” when considerably less than a spoonful makes them gag.

For myself, I admit to a weakness for big and small musicals if they’re affecting, if you’re not walking out humming the scenery, and if they include some variations of a big tap dance number. These are usually enough to overcome soft-pedaled life-affirming messages, the presence of cute children and unnecessary special stage effects designed to wow the eyes, if not the heart.

In short, I loved Gavin Lee as the good-hearted high-energy chimney sweep and man of many parts Bert, as nimble and more appealing than Dick Van Dyke. Bert leads the sweeps, Mary and assorted others in a rousing “A Step in Time,” which is a tap dance by any other name, and made me very happy indeed. Always does.

In short, Mary Poppins, while ably and sternly performed with prim, brisk energy and lovely voice by Carolyn Sheen, is not really the star of the show. Instead, they are Bert, the Banks children, the Bird lady, the whole big show. Mary, in red suit, tiny hat and open umbrella, is a familiar figure standing still, singing, dancing or flying, but it’s the show itself, with all of its components, that engages the audience, especially children. This is a family-friendly show if there ever was one, and it delivers in more ways than one.

With all spectacle of rooftop dancing, flying acts, gypsies, statues that come to life and a truly terrifying anti-Mary nanny, the intimacy of the show is bound to appeal to the whole family, because it’s about a family and families, about what happens when fathers spend little or no time with their children, all wrapped up in work, when wives have their dreams thwarted, when children are spoiled rotten.

You need a little and a lot of magic.

“Mary Poppins” has plenty of magic, but its Victorian shoes are also firmly planted on the ground so that the characters are recognizable to even small children. For adults, one of the terrific rewards of this show is to watch children reacting to it. I saw a grandfather and his three grandchildren sort of submerge into the proceedings, all four at one point trying to grab projected stars.

Corny? Sure enough. But a good kind of corny. This being a Mackintosh-Disney enterprise, “Mary Poppins” delivers the entertainment goods in a big and lavish way, and it delivers its not-so-subtle messages about parents and children without leaving you with a hit-with-a-frying-pan headache. Take the kids, the wife, the husband, the grandparents, the nanny (legal and registered, of course), and the dog, if they let you. It’s super-califra— sorry, not in spell check. Finish it yourself.

“Mary Poppins” runs through Aug. 22.

Read Gary's interview with Tour Director Anthony Lyn.

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Thu, 24 Apr 2014 07:01:44 -0400

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