The main set for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s “Mary Poppins” consists of four brownish pillars, two containing dusty-looking staircases that ascend to the upper story of the Victorian dwelling at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. George Banks and his family seem to live in a haunted house, and haunted it is – by ignorance, class snobbery, lovelessness, sexism and gnawing financial anxiety.
The title character’s presence alleviates these conditions in the musical, which opens the CTC season in a literally high-flying style. (Stay for the curtain call to see what I mean.) But when she sings that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, she’s reminding us that the medicine may be bitter indeed – and we may have to drink quite a bit before we get healthy.
There’s both joy and sadness in the tale: Mary helps families grow closer together but can never be part of one herself, and the wind blows her away as soon as her moral lessons take root. The show, written by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) to the songs of Richard and Robert Sherman, sticks closer in tone to P.L. Travers’ novels than Walt Disney’s 1964 movie did.
Mary (the firmly charming Janeta Jackson, in a welcome piece of color-blind casting) projects stern compassion and little tolerance for fools. Mr. Banks (Steven Levine), the banker with too little time for his kids, remains fumblingly self-absorbed and unaware of the value of his wife (Lisa Schacher). Youngsters Jane and Michael slowly realize they’re partly responsible for the family’s emotional wellbeing. (Haley Vogel and Alex Kim, who’ll share these roles with other actors, were delightful Friday – too much so at first, as we couldn’t believe they were ever brats.)
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Even Bert, the jack-of-all-trades with an unrequited yen for Mary, projects feral friendliness, an unpredictability that might sweep you off your feet for your own good. Caleb Ryan Sigmon does magic when he’s not acting, and director Michael Bobbitt uses his skills to enhance Bert’s otherworldliness.
Magic counts for a lot in this show, whether in the clever recreation of London chimney tops or lightning-fast costume changes. Ryan Moller’s madly colorful costumes, some designed to shine in the dark, show up especially well on Tom Burch’s subdued set.
At two hours and 40 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission, rare for CTC), the show may feel long to young kids. The strongest music comes in the first act, except for the sweeps’ dance “Step in Time” (choreographed with knockabout glee by Ron Chisholm) and “Brimstone and Treacle,” sung with lunatic fervor by Olivia Edge. (For once, loathsome nanny Miss Andrew is more scary than funny.)
Yet Bobbitt keeps things fresh with visual jokes and speedy transitions, and Mary’s motto – “Anything can happen, if you let it” – gets fully articulated. The magical glow dims a bit near the end: Mr. Banks gets a better job not because he did a good turn for the community but because his decisions made the bank’s board of directors richer. But that glow never goes out, and we all take a little bit of it home with us.