Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mary had a Little Dog

On Broadway, a little dog laughs, with Johnny Galecki and Tom Everett Scott. Plus a bit of BAM from Ellen Lampert-Greaux at Live Design.

I took in Mary Poppins, Disney's latest super-show, at the New Amsterdam last night, The Lion King having found a new habitat. [It's a lovely, woodcut space with the tiniest seats on Broadway; my knees spent the near-three hours having unpleasant sense memories of the last time I was there, in 1998.] The outsized, immaculately crafted Cameron Mackintosh production ensures that the musical, based more on the songs of the 1964 film than its plot or tone, never collapses into the vulgarity of recent disasters like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Lestat. Gavin Lee steps smartly into the shoes of Dick Van Dyke as Bert, the chimney sweep; the British music hall tradition lives. And you get your money's worth from the costumes, lighting, and effects; Bob Crowley's multi-tiered set for the Banks home, including a study to rival the Morgan library, can be retired to the Victorian seaside town of Cape May, NJ, once the run ends.

What's missing, frankly, is Mary Poppins. Playing the vain and vinegary nanny of the stories and not the film, Ashley Brown gives a remote, hard to relate to performance. It's intriguing that Broadway pro Rebecca Luker has been cast as the worn-down Mrs. Banks; Luker, who played Maria in a so-so Sound of Music revival, seems to be there to remind audiences of Andrews' warmth and accessibility in her Oscar-winning part. Why the kids need a helpmate at all with Luker in the house is a puzzle.

The razzle-dazzle is also fatiguing over time. With no real throughline, just a string of incidents, the show could easily wrap up with Act One. Musically, the show peaks with the first act's inventively staged and hand-jivey "Supercali..." (you know the rest), and Lee's gently handled performance and reprises of the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee" are a balm to the ears. A new, second-act number, the chimney sweeps' tap-danced "Step in Time," dazzles, but seems to be there just to give star choreographer Matthew Bourne something to do. I was restless by the time it finally ended. Giving credit where credit is due, Mary Poppins is sincere; I giggled at the Solid Gold costumes the chimney sweeps obtain during "Step in Time," and the near-nude statues who come to life and flounce about the stage during "Jolly Holiday" have raised an eyebrow or two, but that's my preconditioning. I doubt the show means to wink at us. It doesn't, alas, really embrace us, either. Mary Poppins flies but never really takes off, emotionally.

Photo, The Little Dog Laughed. Credit: Carol Rosegg

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