For Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers created a legendary children’s book about a nanny who descends on the stuffy, upper-class Victorian household of the Banks family and proceeds to tame two unruly children and enlighten their parents with discipline, kindness and magic. The book had a lasting effect on me when I read it as a child; more recently, the protagonist seemed to make a comeback as Nanny Deb on the reality show Nanny 911, a large woman wearing a ridiculous semi-militaristic uniform, who created commonsense rules for overwhelmed households; knew instantly whether the chaos was the fault of the children or the parents; and could calm a hysterically crying infant with a gentle touch of her hand.
In between, there were other iterations: The 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sweetened up the character of Mary Poppins as much as that famed spoonful of sugar sweetens medicine, and Mary Poppins, the 2005 musical, softens her up, too. But the script is by Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, and it does allow for some darker currents — not enough to terrify the little ones who are the intended audience of the current BDT Stage production, but enough to have them reaching for a soothing parental hand. A group of toys that have been misused by the Banks children comes to angry life; a former nanny who seems to have emerged straight from the bowels of hell arrives, threatening to replace sugar with brimstone and treacle. These moments add a touch of bitter to what would otherwise be an overly-sweet concoction.
There are also notes of wistful mysticism. When the Bird Lady, sitting on the steps of St. Paul’s, sings “Feed the Birds,” she seems to embody both the encompassing spirit of charity and the very soul of old London itself. You also catch a hint of contemporary politics when Mr. Banks, a bank manager, faces a dilemma: finance a heartless capitalist who deals with money as an abstraction, or take a risk on a well-meaning fellow who plans to set up a real factory providing jobs for real workers.
This production is proof that the cliché about an event being “fun for children of all ages” can be absolutely true. I was spellbound by the evening’s magic, and at the same time I could see everything through the eyes of my grandsons, ages five and nine, whom I plan to treat to Mary Poppins later in the summer: the lively musical numbers, the tricks and the array of peculiar figures they’ll encounter, including balletic statues, tapping chimney sweeps, brightly colored singing and dancing human candies. I envisioned their enthusiastic wiggles and wide eyes, the way they’ll argue about how the special effects were created, and how much time the older brother will spend teaching the younger to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
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A lot of work and thought has gone into this show, which is directed by Scott Beyette — who also plays chimney sweep Bert. Amy Campion’s set must have taken an insane amount of planning, since the plot requires not only that a lot of things get destroyed, but that they be magically put together again. The costumes, by Linda Morken, move with the dancers and are well made and faithful to the period. The dance numbers — courtesy of Matthew D. Peters — are a delight, as are the thrilling moments when characters soar over our heads, choreographed by Troy Trinkle.
If you’re still holding on to those indelible images of Wayne Kennedy’s inspired Tevye in BDT’s Fiddler on the Roof, cast them off: Here the versatile actor plays a quietly desperate Mr. Banks, ground down by his responsibilities, neglectful of his family, and insisting on silence and order in the household — except for the wonderful moment when the all-pervasive magic finally affects him and subversive joy enters his heart. Beyette’s Bert is deeper and more interestingly world-weary than Van Dyke’s; it’s hard to fathom the exact nature of his feelings for Mary Poppins, played by a warmly irrepressible Tracy Warren — which adds intriguing complexity to the plot. The children, played on the night I saw the show by Kaden Hinkle and Katie Phipps, are appealing, and Shelly Cox-Robie brings a lovely tenderness to the role of Winifred Banks. As for Amanda Earls’s Miss Andrew, I now fully understand why half the grown men in England piss their pants when they hear the word “nanny.”
Mary Poppins, presented by BDT Stage through September 5, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, bouldersdinnertheatre.com.