Supernanny takes flight
Sacramento Community Center Theater1301 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
The story goes that when author P.L. Travers, who wrote her first Mary Poppins book in the 1930s, saw the 1964 Disney musical film, she was so displeased that she told Uncle Walt he should take out the animated bits. Travers steadfastly refused to let Disney make a cinematic sequel, but finally gave British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh permission to do a stage version, after she reportedly insisted that nobody from the movie be involved.
All of which explains several things about this stage version, which has several iconic songs from the movie (by the Sherman Brothers, an American duo), alongside new tunes by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Brits, who were toddlers when the Disney film premiered). The show presents a gently retouched image of Mary Poppins, closer to Travers’ intent. Disney’s nanny was relentlessly cheerful. Mackintosh sees her as “stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable” (stern isn’t a term we’d usually associate with Julie Andrews’ portrayal).
This supernanny is also mysterious, almost aloof. She comes and goes on the wind, never explains anything, solves problems instantly and speaks in cryptic terms, like “Anything is possible!” In fact, she’s something of a cipher—actress Steffanie Leigh relies mostly on a knowing smile and commanding mannerisms. And it’s tricky building a musical around an adorable but elusive character.
So this stage version goes all out for spectacle. There’s more scenery flying down on wires, more furniture sliding in on rails, more costumes (some in psychedelic colors) than we’ve seen in recent touring shows.
This makes for vivid scenes, which can also be baffling, like the one in which we glimpse a gargantuan version of Mary Poppins’ umbrella (replete with a parrot-head handle) that’s as tall as a two-story house. Very impressive, but why is it there? That is undoubtedly the wrong question, and the show swiftly moves to the next eye-popping production number and toe-tapping tune.
And there is the flying. Mary Poppins herself goes airborne several times, soaring over the audience in her final trip and alighting in the balcony. It’s breathtaking. Her Cockney sidekick Bert (Nicolas Dromard, from the Broadway run) walks straight up the side of the proscenium, another marvelous visual. (In a stage performance in real time, these marvels are followed by an obligatory song and dance with supporting characters, while the star wriggles out of the harness, unlike a movie.)
To judge the “kid appeal,” I brought my friend Will, a third-grader. He loved the special effects, and he hummed several songs for me afterwards. He estimated that the show had about 60 actors—a good guess, because there are roughly 60 characters (but some performers appear in multiple roles).
We encountered the usual problem when you take a third-grader to a two-and-a-half-hour performance that begins at 8 p.m.—Will was drooping by 10 p.m.; the show ended at 10:40. Will snoozed on the way home. Too bad they can’t start at 7 p.m.; maybe Mary Poppins can put her magic to work on that one. Fortunately, there are several 2 p.m. matinees.