Poppins Pops at DPAC

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.


More Love at Ackland

Echoes of “I love you” resound, each with a different inflection, when anyone passes through the museum’s doorway. It is an appropriate way to introduce an exhibit that exchanges the safety blanket of irony or inaccessibility for an urge toward earnestness, participation, and connection that at times may feel uncomfortable. The Ackland’s new exhibit, “More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s” is organized by the consulting curator Claire Schneider. The exhibit opened Friday, February 1st and will run through March 31st.

Love is at once strategy, inspiration, and subject in the Ackland’s new contemporary art exhibit. The show is fairly expansive—featuring forty-eight artworks by thirty-two contemporary artists, and many of the works are interactive or participatory in some way. Moving through the exhibit, one is continually drawn into a dialogue about love as both a strategy and a destination. Schneider says she was interested in doing a serious, complex exhibit about love that would speak to the art world in a timely manner while also remaining overridingly populist and accessible. “Artists have been representing and using love in their works since the beginning of time,” Schneider said. “This show wants to investigate what contemporary artists are saying about it.”

Considering that the conceptual theme of the show is so broad, Schneider has done an admirable job creating a cohesive, organized exhibit that is ambitious and eclectic yet controlled and focused. To narrow down the overwhelming theme, Schneider decided to direct much of the show’s attention toward love as it relates to both political aim and strategy. Another important theme of the exhibit is the role of technology in love and the effect it has on peoples’ lives and their interpersonal connections.

Many of the show’s pieces are totally based in technology or somehow utilize it as one of their mediums. The juxtaposition between the usually indirect nature of technological communication and the forthright impulses toward human connection or love is executed in fascinating ways. In artist Sarah Gotowka’s work “These Arms of Mine,” for example, text messages are fashioned onto alpaca wool. The wool creates an arm, marked by text emoticons as well as x’s and o’s, that is held aloft from the ceiling as if reaching outward. The translation of text messages, one of the most abbreviated, fragmented examples of technology-enabled communication, onto a plush wool arm is effectively jarring and interestingly imagined.

Felix Gonzalez Torres’s work “Untitled” captures the exhibit’s interactive spirit and exploration of politically-motivated art about love. The piece consists of a pile of candy that lies piled against the corner of the room. Visitors are welcomed to break free from regular museum rules and reach into the artwork itself to gather and consume a piece of fruit-flavored candy from the shiny heap. The candy pile will not be replenished. Instead, part of the work’s identity is its inevitable depletion and disappearance. This work, like many others in the exhibit, speaks to the ephemeral quality of love, existence, and connection. The work is in large part inspired by Gonzalez-Torres dealing with the loss of someone very important to him at the hands of AIDS. The slow depletion of the pile is meant to mirror the virus’s process of destruction.

Some works are purely personal manifestations of love and strong sentiment. These pieces are often incredibly touching but they may also, at times, appear almost too earnest or else saccharine and sentimental. It is interesting to examine what it is about a work that might cause a certain impulse to cringe or to dismiss it as overly—even embarrassingly—earnest. One of those works may be Dario Robleto’s peice “Dario’s Shredded Love Letters,” which consists of a glass medicine bottle filled with pill capsules stuffed with the artist’s own shredded love letters circa. 7th-9th grade. This work and others like it may remind viewers of how rarely they are confronted by such forthright, unabashed and un-ironic expressions of love or sentimentality.

Gregory Sale’s work “Love for Love” greets visitors as they filter through the lobby. His project epitomizes the exhibit’s desire to foster dialogue and participation. Sale’s piece features a paper grid filled with red and green circles—each of which contains some words or poetic phrases. Below the grid are pins upon which all the different expressions have been printed. There is a sign that reads “Take what you need.”

Sale’s piece is a project made possible by social engagement and founded upon the ideas of accumulation, connection, and exchange. Working in collaboration with service and public outreach groups such as Hidden Voices, the Orange County Literacy Council, and the Peace Center at the Orange Correctional Center, amongst others, Sale created a tapestry of words, emotion, and love. Workshops were held by these organizations in which attendees’ emotions, longings, and eclectic iterations of love were recorded.

Others’ voices, longings, and experiences were collected and emblazoned upon pins for Sale’s project, and visitors, in turn can pick one that resonates with them. “You select your pin because in some way you connect with what it says,” said Sale. “You identify a pin, the words of which are another’s, and you begin to add your energy of love to it.” The art project, says Sale, is about love and accumulation. The piece becomes a repository for different experiences of love—something both individualized and connective.

There are many other interactive works in the exhibit—some that encourage engagement and others that require it. The artist Chris Barr’s piece, commissioned by the Ackland, collects participants’ regrets and lost connections. The work is entitled “No Time for Love: Worldwide Regrets Counter for Misplaced Priorities.” Participants may record, on Barr’s website, a time when they missed or did not prioritize a human connection. Their “missed connection” will be sent a card. All of Barr’s collected information, from across the world, is on view at the museum. Again, technology is used to both highlight fragment and loss of connection as well as to reassert love and help to dissolve fissures.

A work by Lee Walton presents an interesting dialectic between viewers and art. The work is entitled “Father and Daughter View the Exhibition” and consists of a daily performance. Father and Daughter pairs, in advance, have volunteered to arrive and view the exhibit everyday at 4:00 and exit at 4:30. The artistic is also the personal in this exhibit, and it broadcasts this idea in many interesting, novel ways.

Schneider has put in a huge amount of work to make the exhibit a dialogue about love. The final product is as much or more about making connections (to the artists, to others, and back to yourself) as it is about gazing at some impressive pieces of art from emerging and established contemporary artists.

Schneider’s passion for what she has organized is palpable as she talks about her conceptual aims and about the individual pieces. She is aware that a show all about love or about politics and love may seem trite or not serious enough to some. “Some people, I think, have been scared to do shows like this because expressions of love are, in a way, seen as commercialized or owned by Hallmark,” said Schneider. “Some are more interested in or consider it more valid to focus on uglier emotions,” she added. “Exploring love and politics together also gets conflated with the 1960s.” In this sense, the exhibit represents a brave move on the part of Schneider and of the Ackland. The viewer may begin to examine why earnest or brazen demonstrations of vulnerability and emotion are sometimes hard to digest. The show, ultimately, feels fresh and very relevant—sidestepping, for the most part, the trite.


Tracey Emin, “More Love,” 2010; neon. 18 1/8 x 47 1/4 inches (46 x 120 cm), edition of 3. © Tracey Emin, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong.