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Theatre Review (LA): Mary Poppins at the Ahmanson Theatre

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There must be an East wind blowing in Los Angeles. Mary Poppins has blown into town and can be seen nightly on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre. I refer, of course, to the musical version of P. L. Travers’ popular children’s stories. Travers wrote a total of eight books about Mary Poppins, who she presents as a vain, acerbic, no-nonsense but magical nanny who comes to work at the Banks household (which has lost a succession of nannies) because the children misbehaved so. Mary Poppins puts all that right through magic, with which she makes the ordinary seem wonderful and chores a matter of a wave of her hand.

Along came Disney which in 1964 made a musical out of the stories and a movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke with songs by the Sherman Brothers. Flash forward some twenty years and Disney has transformed the stories again into a live musical, but not without extensive rewrites and a bunch of new songs. Travers explicitly stated her displeasure over the movie and stipulated in her will that no American would ever get his or her hands on the property. Over the years people have wondered why there hadn’t been a stage version. That’s why.

What Disney has done is hire a British director (Richard Eyre of the National Theatre in London), a famous British choreographer (Matthew Bourne), a British producer (Cameron Mackintosh), sets and costumes by a British designer (Bob Crowley), and a new set of British composers (George Stiles and Anthony Drewe). The result is, well, British, though Disney has still managed to soften Mary’s character to make her cuddlier. The result is a longish evening, because you are hearing two scores, the insipid Sherman Brothers songs (a must because they are so well known), and all that new material. But the show is still a triumph.

Eyre’s direction is spot-on and he has managed to hold onto some of the stories’ grit. The dances by Bourne are brilliant. The magical set and set pieces (statues that come to life and dance, a kitchen disaster that is all put back together in a flash), are just two of the many wonderful touches.

The cast is also super, with the beauteous Ashley Brown as Mary. I have seen her recently as another Disney heroine, Snow White, at Disney Hall, and she doesn’t disappoint. Gavin Lee, who plays Bert, is from the British production, and captures that Music Hall feeling. Together their acting is seamless and you can tell they are at ease with their parts and each other.

The rest of the cast is very good too, with standouts including Karl Kenner as Mr. Banks, Megan Oesterhaus as his wife, Valerie Boyle as Mrs. Brill, and the exquisite Ellen Harvey as Miss Andrew. This is a wonderful show for the holiday season and timely too, as it explores the corruption in the financial world. Mary Poppins plays at the Ahmanson Theatre until Feb. 7.

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