There are three sound reasons to adapt a hit movie into a splashy Broadway show.
First, you’ll mint money in New York and on tour.
Second, it was done badly the first time and needs fixing.
Third, you’ve found something new to say about it.
Reason One is always true of Disney’s musicals, and Reason Two never is. So the question is: Are we merely reliving a happy, familiar experience at 10 times the original cost, or does the stage version contain unexpected pleasures?
The answer for “Mary Poppins,” which kicks off the Performing Arts Center’s Broadway series, is that there’s plenty new: added songs, dazzling stagecraft, amusing new characters and more complicated familiar ones. It may be too much of a muchness, to quote another British storybook character, at 2 hours and 45 minutes. But neither the performers nor the technicians let down for a second, and the effect is grand.
The show was written by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and directed by Richard Eyre, who has handled Daniel Day-Lewis’ “Hamlet” and “Guys and Dolls.” It’s more serious than the sugary 1964 film.
Overwrought George Banks (Laird Mackintosh) is in danger of losing his job at the bank and the affection of his family; wife Winifred (Blythe Wilson) feels stifled as a hausfrau; children Jane and Michael (Camille Mancuso and Talon Ackerman on the night I went) are angry and disobedient. This is a family in crisis, not merely in disarray; the father, whose own childhood lacked love, is not just neglectful but misguided.
The creators have tailored the show to British audiences, who are presumably more familiar with P.L. Travers’ “Poppins” books than Americans.
The title character (Caroline Sheen) is vain and brusque yet oddly appealing, as in the novels; her new introductory song of self-praise, “Practically Perfect,” instantly recreates the no-nonsense character and prepares us for the stage magic we’re about to see, as a tree and a lamp stand emerge from her seemingly empty suitcase.
Minor characters such as lazy lackey Robertson Ay or Miss Lark and her snippy dog Andrew have been brought in from the books for atmosphere. And Miss Andrew (Ellen Harvey) the gargoyle who terrified George in his youth, arrives in the Banks household when Mary Poppins hits the road for a while. (I don’t know if the story needed a villain, but she’s hilariously effective.)
Despite the length, the show never stops moving. Miss Andrew is on just long enough to make her effect, then departs. Mrs. Corry (Q. Smith), another eccentric character from the stories, pops in to set up a splendiferous “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” that ends up with characters turning their bodies into letters.
Here, as everywhere, choreographer Matthew Bourne shines. His ballet training shows when a statue comes to life and leaps about like the hero of “Le Spectre de la Rose,” but he also knows when to give the audience a knees-up dance from the British music hall. Bert (Dominic Roberts), the engaging narrator, gets the big tap number, whose secret I won’t reveal – but it’s a “how-did-he-do-that?” whopper.
The new songs don’t stand up to the old; they were written 40 years after the originals, when the Sherman brothers had long since lost the inspiration of first heat. Yet the cast puts them over with the same zeal as classic numbers: Harvey sings “Brimstone and Treacle” to the shocked kids in a voice of Wagnerian splendor and wickedness, and you forget how unmemorable it is.
New themes do make the show stronger, however. Although the play takes place 100 years ago, there’s a message pertinent to our time: George attacks fellow employees for creating schemes that make themselves rich but produce no public benefit and ruin investors. Take that, Banktown!