From screen to stage, Mary Poppins flies high

Mary Poppins is undeniably Walt Disney’s crowning achievement on screen. The beloved 1964 fantasy blending live action and animation received 13 Oscar nominations and won for five, including Julie Andrews as best actress in the title role of an early 1900s nanny for a well-off but emotionally poor London family of four splintered by the banker father’s career myopia.

But even if Mary Poppins is one of your favorite films — and for many, it is — there’s also no denying the greatness of its stage version, which is both faithful to the film (and P.L. Travers’ stories) and far different from it.

That version is showing for three weeks at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, in a splendid touring production starring the show’s stalwart stars from Broadway, Ashley Brown as take-charge Mary and Gavin Lee as helpful chimney sweep Bert.

It’s a sensational show, substituting the creativity of live-on-stage theatrical magic for the animation and SPFX of the film, while reworking the story with new characters, new character arcs, new twists and — most importantly — new revisions of the song score. That means dropping such numbers as I Love to Laugh, Sister Suffragette and Stay Awake while adding grand new ones such as Cherry Tree Lane, The Perfect Nanny, Practically Perfect, Precision and Order and Anything Can Happen.

The touring production in Houston is spot-on throughout, with minor exceptions. The old Bird Woman, for instance, is almost frightening in her in-your-face command to “feed the birds,” whereas the film’s original was sweet and plaintive, in keeping with the tender song of that name. And it’s hard for Step in Time to have the same boisterous derring-do on a flat stage as in the film (shot on mock rooftops on a sound stage and dressed up with effects to look quite thrilling). But Bert’s gravity-defying walk around the proscenium’s frame makes up for it.

Besides, that’s mere quibbling for a show that’s practically perfect in every way. You’re not going to see better stars than these two originals, with Lee (who originated the role in London) giving Bert such nice-guy charm and smile-flashing brilliance, and with Brown turning Mary into a more vain, theatrical, fiercely self-assured and downright funny nanny than Julie Andrews could with the film’s version.

On stage, Mary trades warm motherliness  for inspiring indomitability. She’s not just cheeky — she’s vividly hard-charging, and I love her. This is one character rewrite  which really works.

Megan Osterhaus also shines as this show’s more grounded and warm Mrs. Banks, a sometimes melancholy woman who gave up an acting career to be wife and mother, and who projects so much love to her husband and children. And Ellen Harvey is an outrageous comic delight as the devilish Miss Andrew, a brief substitute for Mary Poppins, with her wicked repressiveness and fiercely operatic bursts of bombast.

Even without a ticket, you can savor some of this show via the latest Mary Poppins DVD. Its two-disc 45th anniversary edition includes a complete stage performance of Step in Time and a 48-minute documentary on the making of the stage show, including interviews with Brown and Lee, the two stars you can now see in Houston.

So step lively and step in time to see the show during its Houston engagement — running through Nov. 8 — or elsewhere on the road across America. You may fall in love with Mary Poppins all over again, and in new and most delightful ways.

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