“First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear…I never explain anything,” quips Mary Poppins, responding to her hysterical employer, Mr. Banks.
As played by the fiercely confident Jessica Bernard at the Moonlight Amphitheater, the quirkiest nanny to ever fly an umbrella swoops down to Cherry Tree Lane. She drops in with the skills of Glinda the Good Witch and the Dalai Lama to teach the dysfunctional Banks family a lesson.
She glides over the stage, pops out of chimneys, and gives us a very pretty and witty Mary. She turns medicine into lime cordial and rum punch, and she rolls her R’s perfectly. She looks and sounds so much like Julie Andrews that you’ll rub your eyes raw. Her soaring vocals are a spoonful of sugar right out of the Disney film from 1964. Yes this is big anniversary year for Mary Poppins.
As Poppins, Bernard stands erect like a ballet dancer with feet planted in first position. Under her spell, the Banks family learns to appreciate the simple things in life, and each other, in a little more than two hours. She is the flying family therapist with commitment issues who can’t help but dish out advice.
The stage version at Moonlight Amphitheater is darker and deeper than the film. That would please P.L. Travers who wrote the Poppins book back in 1934. Pamela Lyndon Travers wrote eight Poppins novels between 1934 and 1988. They focused on the magical nanny and the Banks family. Her dad was the big inspiration behind the character Mr. Banks. In the film and show, Mr. Banks learns to love his family and kite flying. In real life, Travers’ dad was absent and a raging alcoholic. She imagined a perfect family in her books.
Travers wanted to be an actress. She never married and had relationships with men and women. She adopted a boy, a twin. The brothers reconnected as young adults and never forgave her for separating them. Travers’ father was a successful banker in Australia who lost everything. The family had to rely on the charity of relatives. Travers moved to England and hung out with actors and poets. She was enamored by mysticism. Clearly, the musical mirrors aspects of her life.
Mary and her chimney sweep buddy Bert still have an open relationship. She meets him on the rooftop, but when he turns on the charm and tap dances too closely, she floats away on the wind. Leigh Wakeford is spit-spot as Bert. He has all the limber limbs and charm of Dick Van Dyke in the film, but without his fake English accent. As the smooth cockney-narrator, he sings little life lessons in between scenes.
Moonlight artistic director Steven Glaudini and his wife, actress Bets Malone, team up as Mr. and Mrs. Banks and are the emotional heart of the show, both excellent as spouses on the edge. Glaudini, back on stage after a 10-year break, is arresting as the fearful workaholic. His booming voice frightens his children on stage and those in the audience, but quivers during the song “A Man Has Dreams.” Malone is his loving wife Winifred who longs for her youth as an actress. She sings beautifully of her regrets in “Being Mrs. Banks” and stands by her man and children.
The musical retains some of the most bubby scenes from the film and some get a twist. There are new characters too, some gleaned from the book. Author Travers hated the animated penguins in the film. She’d be glad to know there are none in the stage production.
Instead of the animated chalk painting and horse race scene, the musical turns “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into a psychedelic spelling dance. The word does not come from Travers or her love of mysticism. Songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman have said the word came from their childhood. Mary Poppins takes her children to find “an ounce of conversation.” Amber Snead as Mrs. Corry the cookie lady only has letters left. She instructs the kids and dancers in neon costumes to choose cookie letters. The mind-bending scene is a cross between “Wheel of Fortune” and the Village People dancing the song “YMCA” with their arms.
“Jolly Holiday” has almost naked statues in the park come to life to dance ballet. As Neleus, son of Poseidon, Justin Matthew Segura whips off a few pique turns and tour jetes without losing his golden skin. There’s a fascinating section where toys come to life.
Debbie Prutsman does double duty as the evil nanny Miss Andrew and the bird lady. “Feed the Birds” is sure to draw a few tears and teach compassion for those less fortunate. Prutsman gives Miss Andrew the persona of Cruella de Vil, an abuser who tries to make Jane and Michael drink Brimstone and Treacle, a foul mix of sulfur and molasses, once used as a health tonic and punishment for naughty kids. The standoff between Poppins and the evil nanny is entertaining. Prutsman’s shrill vocal range could shatter glass. Mary sends her packing.
As Jane and Michael Banks, Abby DeSpain and Nate Carman are remarkable 10 year-olds with acting skills and grace far beyond their years, and convincing spunk.
Director/choreographer John Vaughn gleans fine performances. Staging is wonderfully crisp. The storyline will tug at the heart strings of parents. Sets are fluid storybook pages that slide right to left and up and down, which are sure to entertain children.
On opening night the orchestra and voices sounded sweet, though maybe too loud. By the time the new and final song “Anything Can Happen” comes around, the show feels too long. Mary and Bert share their deepest lecture here, which borders on tedium. Dancers swirl around and wave long poles with lights on the tips. The idea is to make starry lights blend in with light patterns on the back of the stage, but it feels cheesy and too much like an ice show and therapy.
The most lively and well-rehearsed dancing comes in “Step in Time” where chimney sweeps tap their hearts out on the roof tops of London. Bert wows as he taps up the side of the stage wall and upside down.
Mary Poppins hovers over the Moonlight stage through August. 2.