Those of us reared on the gloriously giddy ditties made famous in Disney's 1964 version of Mary Poppins can remain calm. Though the present Charleston Stage production veers from the movie, your "A Spoonful of Sugar" fix is safe. Under the watchful eye of director Marybeth Clark, that memorably merry tune and many others emerge in full grandeur from the carpetbag of show tricks that come together in this delightfully agreeable musical at the Dock Street Theatre.
Who would tamper with such show-stopping brilliance? Rest assured, the stage adaptation, which debuted in 2004 under the rooftops of London before crossing the pond to Broadway in 2006, has some heavy-hitting credentials behind it. It is the co-creation of Downton Abbey mastermind Julian Fellowes and theater giant Cameron Mackintosh, and culls the best of both takes on the tough-loving, tender-hearted British nanny: the Disney film that created the perennially popular score, as well as P.L. Travers's original Mary Poppins children's book series that was launched in the 1930s.
As the parent of a toddler, I've lately become an accidental Disney-version dilettante. "Let's Go Fly a Kite" gets the full treatment at our beach outings, and bedtime frequently involves requests for me to croon "Jolly Holiday." What's more, even on the 107 viewing, the movie goes down with surprising ease — not unlike the lime cordial and strawberry ice "medicine" that Mary spoons out to Jane and Michael Banks. It is also easy on my parental conscience, spoon feeding life lessons and moral certitude with a splendid, measured 1960's pace, and without either a Sponge Bob assault or the hyper-stimulating approach of many of today's children's viewing options.
So I come to this Charleston Stage production with a renewed appreciation and a geek-worthy knowledge of just what makes Mary Poppins so bloomin' magical. It's that irrepressible element of fun, which elevates the everyday in unexpected ways. The Fellowes/Mackintosh adaptation does not depart from this rousing premise, though there are some moments of joy that have been scuttled by the creators for the sake of a successful stage play.
Mrs. Banks, for example, is no longer the comically flighty suffragette, and now carries a bit more emotional ballast. She is a woman who has opted for family over a career and must now work through that choice. Mary Poppins confronts her own moment of truth. When she questions whether or not she really can upend the status quo at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, we see a new side of the unwaveringly confident nanny, one that is accompanied by a rare note of self-reflection.
But onto the fun stuff, of which there is plenty. The set provides ample British cheer and visual wit, with its cleverly constructed London rooftops and picturesque park tableaux. Both the original music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman and the production's new offerings by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe receive terrific, hum-along-friendly renditions.
As Mary Poppins, Carin Lagerberg bears up beautifully under the weight of legend. Her engaging demeanor and vocal mastery impress. Nathan Burke is a convivial Bert (and throws in some impressive tricks of physical theater along the way). Mr. and Mrs. Banks stand up as well, too, with Patrick Tierney affording the charmless, rigid George just enough breathing room for us to celebrate his redemption, and Becca Anderson folding maternal warmth into this newly imagined Winifred.
In the roles of Jane and Michael Banks, Veruka Salomone and Tyler Caplea deserve extra credit for not only capturing the petulant leanings of these famously misguided youth, but for also infusing the production with some cheek and spunk. Additionally, it seems servants on stage always get to have more fun, and such is the case with Beth Curley as the shrill Mrs. Brill and Ryan Pixler as a prat-falling and guileless Robertson Ay.
I held my breath when "Chim Chim Cher-ee" approached, as it would be hard to match the spectacle we've all seen before. By George, they got it, and it was a particularly inspired element of the production. And, while the "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" number was equally elaborate and exuberant, it was a feat that did test the limits of the available square footage on the Dock Street stage.
That being said, the production kept a stiff upper lip, working diligently on all fronts in their pursuit of being practically perfect in every way — a tall order in musical theatre. As the cast approaches the remaining shows, I remain hopeful it will take a bit of advice from Mary Poppins herself, that is, you find the fun and snap — the job's a game.
Easier said than done, to be sure, with microphones, fly systems, and compact real estate for grand numbers (not to mention the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke hard-wired into every audience's aural memory). However, with this talented, high-energy cast and polished production moving into its second week, I am confident that the fun has just begun.