SF Playhouse's 'Mary Poppins' Is At Turns Tough and Treacly

SF Playhouse's 'Mary Poppins' Is At Turns Tough and Treacly

  El Beh as Mary and Wiley Naman Strasser as Bert in SF Playhouse’s Mary Poppins. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

El Beh as Mary and Wiley Naman Strasser as Bert in SF Playhouse’s Mary Poppins. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

by Jay Barmann

A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but in SF Playhouse’s new production of the revised Mary Poppins as a stage musical, it’s a heaping bowlful of caustic wit (and a bevy of dance numbers) that help the saccharine life lessons go down. British theater producer Cameron Mackintosh spearheaded this version beginning with a London production that opened in 2004, using most of the famous songs from the 1964 Disney film, while pulling in a number of elements from author P.L. Travers original book series. Namely, as SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English explains in a program note, this is a darker vision of Travers’ nanny/mystic that’s much more faithful to the original, with a bit more emphasis placed on the contrast of the well-to-do Banks family with the struggles of London’s working class.

Bay Area theater vet El Beh plays Mary, who arrives on Cherry Tree Lane not with Julie Andrews’ signature cheery aplomb, but with an edge of haughty disdain that conceals a warm heart. Meanwhile Bert (played with great charm and ease by Wiley Naman Strasser), has a melancholic air as he sings that famous “Chim-Chim-Cheree” from a sooty rooftop, and why shouldn’t he? He labors as a chimney sweep and tries to sell his paintings in the park to make ends meet, and his apparent affection for Mary is only barely, if ever, returned.

Screenwriter Julian Fellowes, best known for exploring historical class tensions in Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, reimagines the world of Mary and the Banks family with a bit more darkness. Mr. Banks (Ryan Drummond) is given more of a backstory — including a “holy terror” of a nanny from his own childhood who makes an appearance in Act 2 — Mrs. Banks (Abby Haug) is recast as an unhappy former actress rather than a suffragette, and there are other changes that draw from Travers’ books as well. The “Feed the Birds” song is given to the apparently homeless woman selling bird seed, serving as a more striking metaphor for feeding the poor and having sympathy for the less fortunate. And the kooky, ageless Mrs. Corry, who only briefly appears in the movie, appears to introduce “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from behind the counter of her sweet shop where she also sells words and “conversation.”

Other favorite songs from the movie, like “Go Fly a Kite,” are used in different ways, and a song introducing Mary that was deleted from the original score, “Practically Perfect,” was recreated by the songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who composed several other new songs for the stage version as well — including the fairly saccharine closing number, “Anything Can Happen.”

Director Susi Damilano has worked hard to scale down what is meant to be a sweeping spectacle of a show for SF Playhouse’s relatively small stage — though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the wildly impressive, spinning and transforming set designed by Nina Ball. The choreography by Kimberly Richards is intense and at times delightful, though there were many moments on opening night in which it felt like some of the ensemble were out of step and perhaps out of their depth with the complicated steps.

The singing, however, is impressive throughout, with Haug and Drummond both showing off their vocal chops early in Act 1 with “Precision and Order,” and Beh and Strasser both singing and harmonizing beautifully throughout the show.

There is some inevitable awkwardness in this reverse-engineered stage play, particularly in the fact that it was co-produced by Disney, who would go on to reap box office gold over six and a half years on Broadway — playing in the same Disney-run theater as The Lion King before it and Aladdin after it. Some of Travers’ darker elements are brought in, like the menacing, life-size toys who climb out of their toy box one night to seek revenge for their poor treatment, but on the whole you have the mysterious Mary arriving and departing as a sage bestower of sound advice and spoonfuls of kid-friendly treacle. Mr. Banks is transformed from cold soul to loving husband and father with barely the wave of a wand, and we are left still wondering where it is Mary flies off to when she so abruptly decides she must.

No doubt this show will play well for holiday-season tourists staying around Union Square, and that was perhaps the end goal. And once again SF Playhouse pulls off a complex and demanding musical with greater ease than you’d by rights expect for such a small company. But if you’re hoping for the transcendent wonder of their last big show, Sunday in the Park with George, you might leave disappointed.

‘Mary Poppins’ plays through January 12th. Find tickets here.

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