Mary Poppins: A Jolly Holiday
Westchester Broadway Theatre brings to life "Mary Poppins," the enchanting tale of a magical caregiver.Published: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 By: John P. McCarthy, For The Journal News; Source: The Journal News
What makes Mary Poppins such a reassuring figure? Is it that she's equally practical and whimsical? Both firm and compassionate? Maybe it's her faith in people's essential goodness. Being pretty doesn't hurt. Nor does being able to fly.
Whichever traits are responsible, it's a comfort to fall under her spell. Not everything about Westchester Broadway Theatre's production of "Mary Poppins" is as enchanting as its magical caregiver, but the musical goes down easily enough.
Adapted from the 1964 Walt Disney movie, which was loosely based on the stories by P. L. Travers, the show has a witty book by Julian Fellowes, creator of "Downton Abbey." Fellowes hints at the darker elements in Travers' writing while preserving its family friendliness. The takeaway: behaving properly doesn't mean you're a bore.
In Edwardian era London, Jane and Michael Banks are running through nannies at a steady rate. It's not all their fault. Their father, George, seeks an environment in which children are rarely seen or heard yet their socially insecure mother, Winifred, has doubts and cannot deliver. So the household is in turmoil until Mary arrives and, by unlocking the children's imaginations while simultaneously providing boundaries, puts things in order.
A self-assured, likeable performer is vital in the title role, and Lauren Blackman fits the bill. Her Mary is authoritative and attractive, mysterious and mischievous. She has a powerful singing voice, looks fantastic in Derek Lockwood's snazzy costumes, hoofs it with gusto, and can gracefully move through the air clutching an umbrella and overstuffed valise. Leo Ash Evens is a capable Bert, the chimney sweep who helps Mary watch over the Banks family. Evens, whose strong suit is dancing, comes off as an impish master of ceremonies.
Unfortunately, the production isn't as melodious as expected. The orchestra led by Leo Carusone stresses volume over harmony and Blackman and Evens' voices aren't ideally matched. There's nothing technically wrong with their singing, it's a matter of aural compatibility. At any rate, you don't emerge humming Richard and Robert Sherman's original tunes — the exception is "Feed the Birds" trilled by Laura Cable — or any of the new songs conceived by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe for the stage version.
Director-choreographer Richard Stafford doesn't let the momentum flag and his staging excels during the numbers that occur in Mary's parallel, charmed universe — for instance, when the park statues come alive during "Jolly Holiday."
Though hardly unobtrusive, the rigging used to get Mary and several other characters airborne functions smoothly enough. Its most dramatic deployment comes during Mary's Act Two confrontation with George's childhood nanny, Miss Andrew (aka "The Holy Terror"), who returns to impose her brand of starched discipline. Jan Neuberger is terrific in this featured role, essentially the bad witch to Mary's good witch. Her face twitches hilariously as she clucks her mantra "seek satisfaction from punitive action."
If Miss Andrew's approach to child-rearing entails harshness and deprivation, Mary emphasizes freedom and responsibility. Her genius lies in knowing the difference between mollycoddling and empowering encouragement. Taking their cue from P. L. Travers and Walt Disney, the creators of "Mary Poppins" realize Mary's calming presence is what makes the musical such a safe bet.
When: May 8 to July 27. Shows at 1 p.m., Wednesday (except July), Thursday and Friday; at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; at 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Meal service begins 90 minutes before curtain. Where: Westchester Broadway Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford. Tickets: $54 to $80, including meal and show (plus tax), with discounts for seniors, children and groups at selected performances.
Call: 914-592-2222. Web: www.broadwaytheatre.com