A Spoonful of RuBarb
Beginning in the early 90s with Beauty and the Beast, there began a trend of popular Disney movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, and judging by Frozen opening on Broadway last year, it’s not going away any time soon. One of the company’s oldest properties to get this treatment was Mary Poppins in 2004, and though it couldn’t boast new music by the original songwriters like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, it did have some big names in producer Cameron Mackintosh of Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis, and writer Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. The goal was to combine the Disney film with additional elements from P.L. Travers’ books.
It’s this version that is the centrepiece of RuBarb Productions’ summer theatre extravaganza this year, a show that goes all out to take advantage of that fact. The premise is one we all remember from childhood: a workaholic banker hires the enigmatic Mary Poppins to be the nanny for his two young children, to whom she teaches etiquette, manners, benevolence, and charity through her uniquely stern but whimsical personality, and a little bit of magic -teaching their father some of the same virtues in the process.
Largely the problems with Mary Poppins are entirely creative, not presentational as pertaining to this performance. It all really boils down to arrangement. The script doesn’t want to stray too far from the beloved musical, but also wants to make it feel fresh and pay tribute in small ways to Travers’ original ideas. However they don’t gel together very well, and so the show is a little haphazard in design, with sequences moved around to accommodate new scenes and new characters like Ms. Andrew the terrible nanny, and Robertson Ay the butler, both of whom are ultimately pointless to a plot that just steers back to the Disney film anyway. Pacing issues result from this rearranging as well. Mr. Banks loses his job before the second act, and the best and most important song, “Feed the Birds”, likewise comes way too early, lessened in its impact by being just ahead of the bombastically ludicrous “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. New things are done with the old songs, which is fair enough; “Jolly Holiday” really works as a stroll through the park with statues coming alive -a good replacement for the animation of the film, but “Step in Time” is introduced with a completely new opening that doesn’t match the tempo of the rest of the song. And while there is a necessity to reinvigorate “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, spelling the word out was the wrong way to do it. You can easily tell the difference between the Sherman Brothers’ songs and the ones that were added forty years later too. Some are okay, such as “Being Mrs. Banks” and “Anything Can Happen”, but most are unremarkable, and in the case of “Brimstone and Treacle” and “Playing the Game”, a little too dumb even for this story. The play relies a little too much on “A Spoonful of Sugar”, perhaps not realizing that it’s not thematically relevant by the end. Certainly not compared to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”.
But one thing the play does well is add a little more character to the Banks family, and it’s illustrated successfully in RuBarb’s production. Even if the play can’t quite reach the level of pathos for him as the film, Geoffrey Tyler makes for a very sympathetic Mr. Banks, with Stella Salido Porter as his wife. Her suffragette campaign, a Disney addition, is removed from the play and it actually results in her being a more active character. Julia Dunne, as in Sunshine Sketches, is a highlight in the title role; a great singer who finds the median between Julie Andrews’ Mary and P.L. Travers’ Mary, and plays that part with consistency and devotion. But the scene-stealer is Felix LeBlanc’s Bert, brimming with energy and enthusiasm through the entire two and a half hour show. He’s got the agility for the part, and even manages to nail a couple of Dick Van Dyke’s physical signatures. Each time he starts “Chim Chim Cher-ee” off stage it’s hard not to smile in anticipation.
The choreography is excellent. The cast already makes great use of the Mae Wilson Theatre, with a number of sequences branching out into the aisles, but the stage is the place for some elaborate routines performed by a very talented ensemble. Interestingly, the best part of the show is one of the less remembered parts of the movie: the “Step in Time” sequence. I’m tempted to say this skilful tap-dancing scene equals the movie in its rhythm, ingenuity, and energy, and everyone involved in it deserves a kudos.
If you live in the Moose Jaw area and love the movie (and who doesn’t really?), you’ll want to see this play. It’s very well acted and choreographed, quite professionally staged, just a little awkward on a narrative structural level, especially if you know the story. Either way, you’ll be humming the familiar tunes as you leave the theatre.
Check out Jordan's Review of the 1964 film version of Mary Poppins