Stage Door Review 2019

Mary Poppins

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


music and lyrics by Robert B. Sherman & Richard M. Sherman, additional music & lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe, book by Julian Fellowes, directed by Megan Watson

Grand Theatre, Spriet Stage, London

November 29-December 29, 2019

Mary: “I’m practically perfect and here’s my aim

By the time I leave here you both will be the same”

The Grand Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins is most notable for the attention it pays not just to the singing but to the acting. While there are some odd choices in direction, choreography and design, this Mary Poppins presents the four principal characters as far more complex than in any of the previous productions I’ve seen, including the original West End production.

A real boon to the show is its all-star casting. The four main actors – Deborah Hay, Mark Uhre, Ben Carlson and Alexis Gordon – have all starred in productions at both the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival. A fifth actor, Jan Alexandra Smith, has starred at the Shaw and has recently starred in several Grand Theatre productions. All five of these superb singer/actors are known for the subtlety they bring to their roles and that is no exception here.

In the original West End production and in the North American tour of the Broadway production directed by Richard Eyre, there was more interest in emphasizing the spectacle and noticeably little in emphasizing the psychology of the central characters. The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Banks seemed sketched in, Mary Poppins was an oddly unemotional enigma and Bert, while friendly and helpful, also seemed unknowable.

Breaks in this characterization began when the show was licensed for regional productions. When Drayton Entertainment staged it in 2013, Jayme Armstrong gave Mary a less severe demeanour and a little wink as if Mary were not actually as serious as she seemed. When Young People’s Theatre staged it in 2018, Vanessa Sears took this notion farther and made Mary not at all severe and her rigour with the two Banks children as more of game.

At the Grand Theatre, Deborah Hay gives the most sympathetic portrait of Mary yet. Hay makes her unshakeable in her beliefs but clearly benign. More than that, unlike all previous Marys I’ve seen, Hay shows that Mary has become emotionally involved with the Banks children in spite of herself. No other Mary I’ve seen has had to wipe away a tear on leaving her young charges. This creates quite a different experience by bringing out a tension in Mary between her efficient neutrality and her personal caring. This tension makes her lovely performance of all her songs all the more engaging.

Mary’s friend Bert, whom the musical makes the narrator of the tale, is usually as emotionally unreadable as Mary. At the Grand, Mark Uhre sings Bert’s songs with such a tone of melancholy that we feel as if he has seen unhappy families like the Banks all too many times before. While all the stage productions show Bert performing a different job every time we see him, here for the first time it hits home that Bert is doing these jobs not because he needs to but to be able to observe the children Mary has taken under her wing.

One of the best ideas director Megan Watson and choreographer Stephen Cota have is to give Bert the power to fly during the big “Step in Time” number and to alight on the tops of the chimney-sweeps’ brushes. This is more than a special effect, unlike Bert’s dancing around the sides and top of the proscenium of the stage in the original production. Here it gives us a clue that Bert is as much a supernatural being as is Mary. He is really a type of guardian angel and his various odd jobs are merely various disguises. Mark Uhre seems aware of this interpretation of Bert and manages to give Bert’s speech and gestures an otherworldly air that previous, more down-to-earth Berts I’ve seen have not. This is a great insight and means that Bert is as involved in helping cure the Bankses of their unhappiness as Mary is.

To have Ben Carlson, who has mastered some of the most difficult roles in Shaw and Shakespeare play Mr. Banks is luxury casting. Carlson treats the role seriously, as he does every role, and the result is a more nuanced portrait of the character than I’ve seen before. Carlson conveys Mr. Banks’s stress and inner unhappiness through all his remarks to his wife and children right from the start. He lets us know that Banks is not merely an irritable authoritarian as the character is so often played but a troubled man who promotes “precision and order” because he himself feels he’s losing control over his world.

Alexis Gordon makes a wonderfully warm Mrs. Banks. For once the musical’s notion that Mrs. Banks was once an actor who gave up the stage because of her husband’s notion of propriety stands out throughout the show. Gordon’s way of speaking and moving suggest a vivacious young woman who has had to restrict her natural inclinations to show her love for her husband. Gordon lends her main song “Being Mrs. Banks” a quiet air of resignation that immediately makes her sympathetic.

Jan Alexandra Smith could not play two more contrasting characters than the Bird Woman and Miss Andrew, Mr. Banks’s former nanny. As the former she does not affect an old woman’s voice, but sings her simple tune with passion, allowing her costume and physical movement to convey the woman’s agedness. As Miss Andrew she is all sharp angles and ramrod straight as if her her inflexible views had affected her physical demeanour. Her account of “Brimstone and Treacle” is truly menacing and the battle of operatic voice between her and Mary Poppins is quite amusing besides allowing us a glimpse of the real vocal power both Smith and Hay command.

Both children, Hayden Baertsoen as Michael and Abi Verhaeghe as Jane, excellent in both singing and acting. For one so young Baertsoen is especially good at giving focus and seeming fully engaged.

Jak Barradell, who plays the statue Neleus, played the same role at Young People’s Theatre last year. His singing, speaking and acrobatic abilities are still impressive, but Watson and Cota don’t give him an unpeopled background for his flips and turns that would make them stand out as well as they did at YPT.

Phoebe Hu is quite a different Mrs. Brill the cook than others in previous productions. Rather than the usual Scottish accent, she puts on a broad Chinese accent that she deliberately uses to comic effect. Giovanni Spina has such presence as Robertson Ay, the Banks’s houseboy, that it’s a pity he isn’t given more to do.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set consists of three side of a large white box the left and right sides of which have three centre-hinged swinging doors. Set pieces are easily pushed on and off through these doors and the back wall can be lowered. Initially the three high walls seem inappropriate for a musical where so much of the action takes place outside. This doubt is allayed somewhat by Watson’s extensive use of Jamie Nesbitt’s projections to create everything from wallpaper in the rooms of the Banks home to trees in the park to a rooftop view of London. As usual with projections, when they merely set the scene they are fine but when they are used for special effects themselves they disappoint. This is especially true at the finale when the scrim comes down in front of the actors and we seen an animation of celebratory confetti and streamers. Yes, it would be messier and more expensive but real confetti shots from cannons and streamers would be much more effective.

While Stephen Cota’s choreography is lively and inventive, he strangely holds back in the the show’s two biggest dance numbers. In “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” he has all the denizens of Mrs. Corry’s Talking Shop holding the letters that make up the imaginary word, but never does he think of having the performers spell out the word, or even misspell it, by standing up in order. Perhaps, Cota is deliberately avoiding the most obvious way to stage the song, but it looks like he has equipped the cast for a climax that never arrives.

Cota’s other odd lapse is to avoid tap dancing for the big Act 2 number “Step in Time”. This was a tap spectacular in the original project and tap has featured in ever other production but this. The music is written with pauses between phrases where tap sequences would normally occur, so it is peculiar not to have them. Again Cota may be trying to avoid the usual, but since the music seems to ask for a percussive rejoinder from the performers, it seems unsatisfying not to provide it. In compensation for this, Cota does gives us Bert’s flying and pausing on the tops of the chimneysweeps’ brooms which helps to underline his supernatural nature.

While it is hard to get used to the confines of Savoini’s set and the overuse of Nesbitt’s projection, what makes this Mary Poppins special is the real feeling of a community disrupted in the Banks household, a disruption that Mary Poppins appears sent to heal. With all four main characters played with much more depth than usual, the musical’s underlying theme takes on greater weight. Parents must try to understand their children; children must try to understand their parents. The emphasis the Grand production places on this theme helps make the show an ideal family entertainment.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Abi Verhaeghe as Jane, Alexis Gordon as Mrs. Banks, Deborah Hay as Mary Poppins, Giovanni Spina as Robertson Ay and Hayden Baertsoen as Michael; Mark Uhre as Bert with chimneysweeps; Ben Carlson as Mr. Banks andAlexis Gordon as Mrs. Banks; Jamie Murray as Annie, Hayden Baertsoen as Michael, Christy Adamson as Mrs. Corry, Deborah Hay as Mary Poppins, Abi Verhaeghe as Jane and Mark Uhre as Bert. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

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