In the last few years, if there are two things we’ve learned about Australian born author P.L. Travers it’s that she was no fan of Walt Disney nor the Disney film version of her most famous character, Mary Poppins.
In fact, her dislike was so ardent, when approached by producer Cameron Mackintosh regarding the development of a live stage musical, after much discussion she reluctantly agreed but added the following two conditions: 1) Only an English-born writer could author the script, and 2) No one involved in the original film could be involved in the show.
Knowing her reaction to the film, you can’t help wondering what the prickly author would have thought of the stage version if she was still alive. More specifically, how would she have reacted to the new musical version that opened this past weekend at Phoenix Theatre? If it was anything like the opening night crowd that packed a full house on Friday evening, by the show’s conclusion she would have leapt to her feet displaying the biggest of grins and greeted the talented cast with thunderous applause while crying, ‘Bravo!’
Perhaps more than others, the last few seasons at the most famous of all valley theatres have truly pointed Phoenix Theatre in the most creatively ambitious of directions. Now with the arrival of this sparkling new production of Mary Poppins – and just in time for the end-of-the-year holidays – the title of being the region’s premiere place for musical comedy is well and truly solidified.
The musical is not a full recreation of the film. Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes knows a thing or two of genteel British family life as it changed from Victorian times into Edwardian and here in Mary Poppins he has removed elements from the film, added new ones from the books and changed the order of some of the songs while cutting others altogether. Plus, as we learned from the recent Disney feature Saving Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins isn’t really about a magical nanny helping two children getting to know their parents; it’s about the redemption of the father. In the new musical, Mr. Banks (Clay Sanderson) is far more prominent with a new backstory revealing secrets of his childhood and showing us why he became the disciplinarian his children know him to be. If Mary Poppins is going to affect change in anyone in the house on Cherry Tree Lane, it’s Mr. Banks. P.L. Travers would have been thrilled.
Musically, under maestro Alan Ruch’s continually solid direction, this Phoenix production truly excels. Plus, director Michael Barnard’s staging of the big musical sequences with high-energy choreography from Sam Hay range from the thrilling to the spectacular as exploding colors and sound mixed with a few surprising visual flourishes both excite and exhaust. There’s a collapsing kitchen that magically reassembles during A Spoonful of Sugar, marble statues that come to life during Jolly Holiday, plus tap-dancing chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London who leap so high you’d swear they had springs on their heels. Plus, the sight of Toby Yatso as Bert seemingly climbing the width and breadth of the theatre’s proscenium arch during Step In Time then dancing, upside down on the ceiling will leave you breathless.
With the exception of the song Practically Perfect, the remaining new numbers by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe are at a disadvantage. It’s not that they don’t live up to the Sherman Brothers’ original score, its’ just that timeless songs like A Spoonful of Sugar, Jolly Holiday, and Chim Chim Cher-ee are so well known and ingrained in modern culture that hearing something new among the classics automatically relegates them to the back of the queue.
Care has been taken with finding the right adult leads, and it shows. Clay Sanderson successfully fleshes out the true, loving nature of Mr. Banks while Shana Bousard injects Mrs. Banks, now no longer a suffragette but an ex-actress, with the kind of supporting strength absent from the more subservient way Glynis Johns played the character in the film. Johanna Carlisle bursts onto the stage like an indestructible tornado as the fearsome Holy Terror, Miss Andrew and manages to steal every scene as she goes. And Toby Yatso with his boundless energy and non-stop enthusiasm – plus a cockney accent that far surpasses Dick Van Dyke’s – is so right for the part of Bert it’s hard to imagine any other local performer taking on the role and doing it as well as Toby.
And finally, there’s Mary herself, here played by the ever delightful Trisha Hart Ditsworth who, after her role as Maria in Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of The Sound of Music last Christmas continues her hobby of fast cornering the iconic roles of Julie Andrews during the valley’s holiday season. Time and again, just like her singing voice, Trisha’s stage presence and delivery grows stronger with every local regional theatre role she wins. With Mary Poppins, Trisha delivers the right element of strength behind the smile and an unwavering assuredness of character that is probably closer to the way P.L. Travers intended the nanny to be rather than the original Disney interpretation.
Backed by Robert Kovach’s outstanding scenic design consisting of the house on Cherry Tree lane that opens up and somehow becomes the local park, then Mrs. Corry’s sweet shop, not to mention the rooftops of well-to-do London homes, Mary Poppins may not be a Christmas themed musical but it is full to the brim with holiday magic, complete with the backdrop of a perfect Disney night sky full of twinkly stars, the kind that Jiminy Cricket wished upon.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.