So the highlight of my visit to The Vegas, besides the pleasure of seeing my friend Thistle again, was going to see Mary Poppins at the Smith Center. The show is touring in Los Angeles later this year, so it may be of some use to those readers in that city to read of the experience.
The Smith Center is first of its kind in Vegas, a performing arts complex that houses theatre, cabaret and music, with nary a slot machine, pasty, or sequin in sight. Well, maybe someone was wearing sequins in the Supercalifragilisticexpialidotious sequence. I’ve done little research on the venue, but it’s clear that a pile of money went into the place and it shows. It reminded me immensely of Union Station in downtown LA, and given the Smith’s proximity to the train tracks, I wonder whether it was built whole cloth or restored from a terminus, like the Annenberg Center is absorbing the old Beverly Hills Post Office.
We had perfectly lovely seats. We were in the first partierre box, very close to the stage, and while box seats normally offer restricted views, ours was angled appropriately and had none. I had great trepidation entering the theatre, as Ms Andrews iconic performance as charmed me as much as any/everyone else in the world, and I’ve always even enjoyed Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney-Australian-South African accent. I listened to the Original Cast Recording and had found it a little lackluster. Most of all, I feared that the stage production would not be able to provide the sheer magic of the film that proceeded it. I am more than pleased to say that my fears were fully assuaged. Like its eponymous heroine, the show was practically perfect. Much of the creative team behind Mary is well pedigreed. Cameron Mackintosh is responsible for the much of the British invasion on Broadway in the 1980s, producing Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon, among many others. He’s certainly the most fiscally responsible producer of all time. Director Richard Eyre is not the first person one would think of for a family musical, having helmed Ian McKellan’s 1930s fascist Richard III, two productions of Hamlet, and the movies Iris and Notes on a Scandal. And co-director, co-choreographer Matthew Bourne is the wunderkind behind Adventures in Motion Pictures, the ballet company responsible for the revolutionary homoerotic interpretation of Swan Lake (it was perfectly amazing) as well as The Car Man, Play Without Words, and Edward Scissorhands. And the book is by Julian Fellowes, Oscar winning writer of Gosford Park and creator of Downton Abbey (the Dowager Countess Grantham is my spirit guide; clearly, I thought, this show has merit.)
Mary Poppins takes elements from both the Disney film (parts of the score) and PL Travers books. The play is somewhat darker than the film: Mr Banks, rather than simply a solipsist Edwardian gentleman is the failed product of a Draconian British childhood. Mrs Banks is not a suffragette but a former actress, lost in a mixed (class) marriage and frustrated by her husband’s inability to communicate. Jane’s and Michael’s acting out are less rambunctious and more dysfunctional cries for attention. Their behaviour is so egregious that Mary Poppins abandons them at the end of the first act and the family is exposed to the despotism of Mr Banks’ childhood nanny Miss Andrew (no “s”), the “Holy Terror.” Miss Andrew’s abusive nature literally comes to roost when she meets her fate and the hand of Miss Poppins. Ultimately the family is made whole, and Mary leaves to work her magic with other, less fortunate, children and parents. Many of whom left the theatre before the actors made their curtain call: I can think of little that is more rude than leaving a play (unless it is truly awful–Randy Newman’s Faust comes to mind) without giving the performers their due: they have sweated and strained and strived for nearly 3 hours (nearly twelve, if you’ve ever suffered through Les Miserables) and we owe them our respect and applause. We watch them onstage because we do not have the bravery, talent, or stamina to be onstage ourselves, and to leave the theatre without giving them their due shows a conscience of character far lower than that of the actors themselves.
Rachel Wallace plays Mary Poppins delightfully. She resembles Julie Andrews in appearance (well, she did after a few gin and tonics), and her voice is crystal clear. Her Mary is a master manipulator, and when, in Practically Perfect, she tells the children “I like games…but I choose them,” one has the feeling that the Banks family really doesn’t know what it’s gotten itself into. As it should be, her love for the Banks children is more apparent to the audience than the characters, and you see her heart break, just a little, when her job is done.
At the production we saw, the part of Bert was played by understudy Con O’Shea-Creal, and not even Eve Harrington could have made more of the opportunity. Slight of figure and puckish in spirit, Mr O’Shea-Creal offered boundless energy as the Jack-of-all-trades, with a far more authentic Cockney accent than his cinematic predecessor. His dancing in Step in Time was the highlight of the evening.
Michael Dean Morgan and Elizabeth Broadhurst exhibit the pain of a marriage based more on sensibility than sense. Mr Morgan makes clear both his humiliation at his redundancy and his general dissatisfaction with his career and life. Ms Broadhurst shows the audience the dilemma of a woman of that time, as a wife who wants to share her husband’s life, but is rebuffed through his repression. While their marriage isn’t always believable, it’s clear, ultimately, that it’s a love match. I honestly can’t recall who, between Marissa Ackerman, Cherish Myers, Zachary Mackiewicz, and Zach Timson (two Zacharies? how confusing) played Jane and Michael on the night I saw it, but they were perfectly marvellous, whoever they were. Q Smith doubled as the Bird Woman and the Evil Miss Andrews (you have to see the play to appreciate the irony) and it is as Miss Andrews that she shines. Costumed and made up like one of Tim Burton’s nightmares, she delights in her Dickensian wickedness and is a fierce foil for Miss Poppins.
The songs not written by the Sherman brothers are solid and workmanlike at the hands of writing partners George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, but the reorchestrations and revisions of such songs as A Spoonful of Sugar, Let’s Go Fly a Kite, Tuppence a Bag, and, particularly, Supercalifragilisticexpialidotious and Step in Time benefit tremendously from their staging. The first is a paean to the Victorian music hall and had the audience clapping in time until their hands were blistered, and the latter is a choreographic coup d’theatre which would leave Astaire green with envy.
I spent much of the play with my mouth open, even though I am not a codfish, enchanted by the magic before me. It’s one thing for Mary Poppins to pull a potted palm out of her carpet bag onscreen, it’s entirely something else for her to do it live and in person, and I still haven’t the faintest idea how she did it. Within its charming Victorian dollhouse set, statues in the park come to life, chimneysweeps dance across the rooftops, the Bird Woman still makes me cry (even though she looked and acted rather like Grizabella the Glamour Cat) and you believe that a) a spoonful of sugar DOES make the medicine go down and b) nannies can fly. Quite frankly, I can’t wait till it gets here and I can see it again. I really need to figure out where that damn palm tree came from.