Author: Mal Vincent, The Virginian-Pilot
"Mary Poppins" is the big, kind of Broadway-ish spectacle that Hampton Roads audiences have been waiting for since Chrysler Hall's Broadway series started this fall with a smallish, Rat Pack-imitation production that had never actually run on Broadway.
But this touring musical, based on the P.L. Travers stories and the 1964 Walt Disney movie, is more in line with the productions up north.
Yes, Mary, the magical nanny, does fly in this production - even though it's more like floating.
Yes, Bert, the magical chimney sweep, tap-dances upside down. And, after all is said and danced, perhaps the "Step in Time" number is, alone, the show-saver, if not the show-stopper.
Perhaps. We're not thoroughly convinced.
After all, "Mary Poppins" is produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Disney Theatrical Group, the top two names when it comes to pre-packaged stage spectacles. The former did "Phantom of the Opera," and the latter did "The Lion King." Those were touring shows that, more than any other, have built up our expectations of seeing re-creations of the Broadway originals play in Chrysler Hall.
But while we are eager to point out when the touring productions are equal to Broadway, we are obliged, at the same time, to point out when they are not. And in this show, the Banks family's house is not as spacious as at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York. Most notably, Mary doesn't fly (float?) out over the audience in this production.
Thankfully, most of the songs from the movie are here, even if "Feed the Birds" and "Let's Go Fly a Kite" get short shrift and "I Love to Laugh" has been cut altogether.
The seven new songs are largely forgettable (although "Anything Can Happen" does contribute a much-needed quiet moment). The Oscar-winning tune "Chim Chim Cher-ee" is there, even if the song is teased several times before it is finally sung. So is "A Spoonful of Sugar," though it suggests that we're getting, instead, a bucketful of spectacle - or, at least, color.
Added to this staging are "naked" statues that come to life and disconcerted toys who resent that they are mistreated.
Respectable critics might approach all this hoopla with an urge, at some point, to call it supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. In the end, it is an easy temptation to avoid, for, actually, the word that comes more to mind is "overwrought." Played broadly, everything about this show is shouted, not whispered.
It is so over-microphoned that much of it comes across as a shriek. This observation applies especially to the two children performers, who are afflicted with an acute case of over-cuteness and over-exuberance.
Madeline Trumble is an aggressive and brassy Mary, but she is tremulous in her loudest moments. She seems more pure of tone when things quiet down a bit - which is seldom.
As always, the favorite is chimney-sweep Bert, played here by Con O'Shea-Creal. The moment when he dances up the proscenium and across the top of the stage seems freer and less wired than when we saw it on Broadway.
Some effort has been made to suggest that this "Mary Poppins" is more than a kiddie show - perhaps to bring out the adults who control the checkbooks. Indeed, the perception is correct. The family pictured is a dysfunctional one in which the father (Michael Dean Morgan, occasionally doing a Henry Higgins imitation) cares more about his banking job than his family. He learns, though.
In the end, he gets over his fears of losing the house and gets a family. Mother, who was a feminist-suffragette in the movie, is now merely an ex-actress, but still worried about climbing in society.
The double-casting of many roles is more noticeable than it should be. Particularly disconcerting is suggesting the old bird woman by just adding a gray wig.
This show is relentless in its attempt to "sell, sell, sell." It could use a few valleys between its mountaintops.
To those who yearn for a big Broadway-formula confection, perhaps more is better.
It would have been nice, though, if the infectious quality of the "Step in Time" number had drifted over into more of the whopping two-hour-and-45-minute-long outing.
Mal Vincent, 757-446-2347, firstname.lastname@example.org