The theatrical version of Mary Poppins is what’s known in the biz as a brand extension, and it’s a business in which Disney has grown quite proficient over the years. By teaming up with Cameron “ Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables ” Mackintosh, Disney has given itself the ability to create a seemingly endless string of critic-proof productions with vast mass appeal and production values few can match. These shows typically run on Broadway for a while, then fan out across the globe in a series of touring productions that are physically scaled down and don’t usually feature the same actors that appeared on Broadway.
Mary Poppins is all of the above, except that the leads—Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert—have reprised their Broadway roles in the show’s run here, a fact that significantly raises the show's quality and appeal. Brown’s Mary is both primmer and sassier than the Julie Andrews version, but it’s her exquisite singing voice that makes her a great stage Mary, and Gavin Lee’s Bert is equally adept at singing and dancing, which is crucial, because that’s about 80 percent of the show.
What Disney has learned since The Lion King is that a mere reproduction of the movie onstage is not sufficient to coax $50+ out of people’s pockets. To do that, you have to provide a stage experience that’s even more spectacular in its way than the movie was—and that’s precisely what Mary Poppins does. First of all, the story is different—it combines elements of the tales from the original books by P.L. Travers, and the set itself is designed to look like a pop-out storybook. There are also some new songs, and some of the familiar songs—such as “Jolly Holiday” and “Step in Time”— were adapted to give the choreographers more time to play.
And play they do. Each production number starts simply, then gradually builds to a magnificently choreographed, over-the-top song-and-dance routine with 20+ performers leaping around the stage, bringing Mary’s magical world to life. Every one of these scenes is a showstopper all by itself, and a few of them—particularly the garden scene for “Jolly Holiday,” the park scene for “Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious,”—take that exquisite Disney-ian leap into a world bursting with so much color and joy and imaginative zeal that it feels like you may have ingested something illegal at the concession stand.
But don’t worry, this is a kids’ show, albeit one made palatable for adults through exquisite choreography and stagecraft. The Disney team also freshens up the story a bit by introducing some scenes and songs that weren’t in the movie—most notably “Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen”—and adding elements of wonder (such as moving, talking park statues, and toys that come to life) that boost the oomph of Mary’s magical powers considerably. In this show, Mary is pretty much a good-hearted witch who has some rather awesome powers at her disposal, not just a nanny with an amusing bag of magic tricks.
The rest of the cast has some fine pipes as well, particularly Megan Osterhaus as Winifred Banks and Ellen Harvey as Miss Andrew (who uses the operatic power of her voice to great comic effect). If you go, you’ll get your money’s worth. Though the production is scaled down somewhat for the road, it doesn't feel like a knock-off touring production: Mary Poppins is an old-fashioned Broadway musical at its Disney-fied best, complete with a live pit orchestra and more than a few spoonfuls of sentimental sugar, which is why it’s so easy to swallow.
Mary Poppins continues at the Orpheum Theatre through Sept. 20.