If Mary Poppins weren’t so benevolent, so utterly devoted to restoring a traditional but dysfunctional family to health, she would make a formidable wicked witch. The character is strict and unyielding, yet universally beloved. Her power to move inanimate objects rivals any poltergeist. She casually defies the laws of physics and routinely hangs out at the park with a bizarre assortment of be-wigged logophiles and pagan god statues. In fulfillment of every child’s nightmare, Mary Poppins brings abused creepy toys to life in the nursery. Her magic is so irresistible and powerful, when an actual wicked witch (Amanda Earls as the crow-like anti-nanny Miss Andrew) challenges her, it’s no contest, a supernatural smackdown.
The current BDT Stage (formerly Boulder’s Dinner Theatre) production of Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical doesn’t shy away from the darkness, the incongruous absurdities and strangeness of P.L. Travers’ stories, especially when they depart from the comfortable familiarity of the film version. Veteran director Scott Beyette wisely establishes the character of Mary Poppins, played with grim determination and a twinkling eye by Tracy Warren, as a diminutive force of nature with a holy plan and unswerving moral compass. In a refreshing departure from what has been coming out of Broadway for decades, Mary Poppins resolutely affirms the sanctity of a traditional family: father as head and breadwinner, mother as nurturer, and children who are free to learn, explore and play in a secure home and safe neighborhood.
The Banks family is struggling to keep stiff upper lips in Victorian England, in large part because the head of the household George (Wayne Kennedy) suffered childhood trauma at the hands of the aforesaid nanny-from-hell Miss Andrew. His values and priorities are warped, upsetting the delicate balance and threatening to send his wife Winifred (Shelly Cox-Robie, and in the performance I saw, Norrell Moore) and their two precocious children Jane and Michael off kilter. The children are acting out and Winifred is insecure about her place in the household. Even the butler (Brett Ambler) is jumpy, and the put-upon cook (Joanie Brousseau) can only do so much.
In answer to what essentially amounts to a prayer, Mary Poppins literally drops in from above, and before you can say “spit spot” the overhaul begins, beginning with the children. Mary’s principal ally is a jack-of-all-trades named Bert (Beyette), who has a talent for being in the right place at the right time.
Most but not all of the favorite tunes from the film version are there, along with several other less-memorable songs. “Step in Time” is a show-stopping dance number, and “Feed the Birds” can still elicit a tear. “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “A Spoonful Of Sugar” are musical comfort food, and the frenetic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” suffers from one or two too many reprises.
Kudos to choreographer Matthew D. Peters, music conductor Neal Dunfee, scenic designer Amy Campion, and especially Troy Trinkle, who is responsible for all the flying — and there’s plenty of it. In addition to Mary’s airborne entrances and exits, Bert gets a chance to take to the skies, directly above the audience’s heads.
Mary Poppins, the quintessential nanny, sets off a chain reaction of crises that force the Banks family to reassess and realign their priorities, until all too soon, her work is done and it’s time to say goodbye. I can’t say that most of us would wish for such a drastic intervention in our own homes, but as they say, a spoonful of sugar…
Mary Poppins is true family entertainment, suitable and indeed, recommended for all ages. Don’t go expecting a carbon copy of the film version. Instead, consider reading some of P.L. Travers’ original stories beforehand.
Mary Poppins plays through Sept. 5. Tickets begin at $38, which includes both the performance and dinner served by the stars of the show. Call 303-449-6000 for reservations and information, or visit www.bdtstage.com.
BDT Stage’s 38th season continues Sept. 11 -Nov. 14 with Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, then The Addams Family, Nov. 21, 2015-Feb. 27, 2016.