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By Alexis Nelson

Poppins Pops at DPAC

By Alexis Nelson Posted February 14, 2013 at 10:02 am

I may have sighed audibly (and grimaced a bit dramatically) when, early in the play, the curtain did not rise to reveal Mrs. Banks, sash across her body, recounting her exploits with the suffragettes or singing “we’re clearly soldiers in petticoats.” However, I was slowly pacified as the show’s undeniable freshness and charm, along with its ultimate loyalty to the overarching spirit of the original film, became evident. Some things are altered—some things are left out—but the play works.

Mary Poppins, the Broadway musical now running at the Durham Performing Arts Center, is lovely, whimsical entertainment for adults and children alike. However, those interested should act fast as there is limited time to catch a performance of this anticipated show. Mary Poppins opened Tuesday, February 12th and will run only through Sunday the 17th with nightly performances as well as additional matinee showings on Saturday and Sunday. The play is co-directed by the Olivier Award winner Richard Eyre and Tony Award winner Matthew Bourne. The set and costume design is executed by the Tony Award winner Bob Crowley.

Overall the play achieves something more than displays of slightly silly charisma or attempted re-hashing of the movie’s best moments. The theater production of Mary Poppins, for the most part, manages to extricate itself from under the looming shadow of the beloved film, becoming both moving and enchanting in its own right.

The play, of course, knows that its fans were and are largely won over by the wonderful source material and original film performances. As a result, the show is fresh and creative—asserting itself as something of a new creation—without straying too far from the magical essence, framework, and tenor of the 1964 film. The actors take their cues largely from their film counterparts.

The show intelligently skirts the urge to revamp characters or tremendously alter distinct mannerisms and behaviors. If you have watched the film a thousand and a half times, as I have, you might be happy to hear that the banking chairman is comically lanky, hunched, and tremulous in the play, as in the movie. The rest of the bankers also form a humorously homogeneous, stereotypically stodgy and formal mass—pencil pushing and thinking only of the bottom line.

Mary Poppins’ themes of embracing family, investing in people over greed or grand schemes, and sometimes forgetting “prudent investments” altogether in favor of simply “flying a kite” or feeding the birds are surprisingly prescient and relevant to current events. The play thus feels timely—even contemporary in its tone, portent and message.

As a piece of theater, Mary Poppins has been adapted from the film to speak even more directly to the current issues. In the movie, for example, the mass of bankers, led by the (symbolically?) intimidating yet physically unbalanced, feeble chairman, urges Mr. Banks’ children to invest their money so as to contribute to England’s empire—to “railroads in India” and other such projects. In the Broadway play, the bank emphasizes and advocates for the sort of hollow lending policies that have largely characterized contemporary financial strategies. The play thus finds freshness and relevance by updating one of its key plotlines.

The show sends a warning message about final goals or products that are only oriented around more money or some hazy, unsustainable idea of more progress—more growth. Mr. Banks is suspended without pay because, under the growing influence of Mary Poppins and his children, he decides to invest the bank’s money in a “good man” over a “good idea.” He lends money to an honest-seeming man looking to build a factory, who emphasizes providing jobs and stable foundations to many men—many families. Concomitantly, Mr. Banks chooses to abjure the values and strategy usually lauded by the bank by denying a loan to a man who wishes to “make money from money.”

In the end, however, the bank’s house-of-cards practices are proved unsustainable and Mr. Banks is rewarded for his foresight. The connection between the personal and the global is perhaps emphasized even more in the play than it is in the film. Mr. and Mrs. Banks working through their own personal issues enables them to be more engaged, present parents. Additionally, a clear line of connection is drawn between Mr. Banks’ personal growth and the bank’s implied shift away from largely hollow schemes of money making.

Mr. Banks himself, played feelingly by Chris H. Hock, is very well constructed, as a man held prisoner by his strict ideas of propriety and patriarchy. His journey toward vulnerability and openness is caringly depicted. Bert, played by Con O’Shea-Creal, is colorful, charismatic, and entertaining—even if he fails to capture some of the footloose, ingenious wackiness of Dick Van Dyke’s performance. Mrs. Banks has been developed quite differently than she was in the film. I, for one, missed the eccentricities and ebullient forthrightness of her on-screen identity. However, the actress Kerry Conte makes you feel for her in a different way—though lacking the comedy of the silver screen version—her character gains a serious developmental trajectory of its own in this play. The children are a treat and play well off of Mary Poppins. Madeline Trumble is lovely as the lead and brings the indefatigable spirit of the magical nanny to life.

Such expected crowd pleasing numbers as “supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus,” “Step in Time,” and “A Spoon Full of Sugar” do not disappoint. The choreography is nicely simple and focused at times and thus does not overwhelm or distract from the sentiment of the song or from individual performances. Kids will love the energetic, inspiring songs and dances. There are some high impact moments involving ropes and pulleys that will likely thrill children and help to make the show even more magical through their eyes. More heartfelt numbers such as “Feed the Birds” are feelingly rendered. The sets are extremely elaborate, highly technical, and interactive. They at times may seem like a little much, especially for adults, but they are certainly impressive and for the most part do not distract from performances or appear too gimmicky.

This prolific play has so far been seen by a not-so-paltry 9.3 million guests worldwide. Mary Poppins originally opened on Broadway in November, 2006 with Disney as its co-producer alongside Cameron MacKintosh. Around three years later the play’s original creative team reunited, and the show’s North American tour began—a tour that has since stopped of at some thirty-four cities.

The play has now arrived in Durham. It is a successful creation on its own—a high-flying piece of entertainment that is also heartfelt and at times surprisingly smart. The show is two hours and thirty-five minutes; call the DPAC Ticket Center for prices and availability. It is a nice ride, but if you can’t make it, go watch the movie again. You’ll still love it.

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