Last night I went to see the musical Mary Poppins at the INB Performing Arts Center in downtown Spokane. The byline reads, “A Musical Based on the Stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film” – in that order. So I of course had to go dig up the two Poppins books I own, Mary Poppins (1934) and Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), which are also the first two published in the series. The musical also borrows from later books like Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), which I haven’t read.
I can’t remember the last time I read those two books (sometime in the 1990s), so I definitely needed a refresher. For books that pre-date both The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, and are set in contemporary London versus a timeless imaginary land (for the most part), they hold up remarkably well. My favorite outdated style technique is to capitalize nouns that aren’t necessarily proper, from eating Baked Custard to dodging the Holy Terror Herself. It’s rather charming and now I want to do it all the time, for instance: “To-morrow I shall be Guarding at the Pool to Ensure that no Unruly Children splash or engage in Other Disreputable Behaviors.”
I was pleasantly surprised by how much material the musical incorporated from the books, with characters like Robertson Ay and Miss Lark and scenes like the statues coming to life. I was more impressed with how they were blended together into an entirely new sort of narrative. For example, the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is entirely a Disney creation, but to introduce it, the musical uses the character Mrs. Corry, who is the one selling gingerbread in the original novel, and the purchasing of Conversations, which happened in the second book with the character Nellie-Rubina Noah. The end result is so natural that it seems odd to think of them as what were originally completely disparate stories.
This patchwork narrative manages something that both the books and the Disney movie never quite grasp. The books have exuberant, imaginative magic that was difficult to translate in a 1960s live-action film, as well as a more powerful and mysterious Mary Poppins. The Disney movie did an excellent job of humanizing the characters, softening Mary Poppins and allowing the Banks family to transform and grow closer, which was never a storyline of the 1930s books. The musical, with stagecraft and lights and well-written characters, manages both.
Themes such as the magic of stars and the importance of fatherhood are carried throughout the entirety, a stark contrast to the vignette-style writing of the books. But the larger plot never becomes tedious and shallow like moments in the movie (e.g. the entire number of “Sister Suffragette” to explain Mrs. Banks’ absence). From a writer’s perspective, I think that the musical is the most well-written in terms of character-driven story.
Favorite parts of the play: Miss Andrew, the Holy Terror. She served as an excellent villain and contrast to Mary Poppins, as well as substantial backstory for Mr. Banks, who lacked that in the film. In that vein I loved the creation of this version of Mrs. Banks, a character who was completely different in the film and not much of an entity in the books. The character Bert (Herbert Alfred the Match-Man in the books) was also fully utilized as narrator, a movie-borrowed aspect that worked just as well for the musical. His wirework moment was spectacular, too. The set design and the ensemble both lived up to the magic of the world of Mary Poppins.
Not-so-favorite parts: I did not like the number “Playing the Game,” an incredibly creepy scene that really didn’t contribute much to the larger story. The end result – Mary Poppins takes the toys – is reversed very quickly and without explanation. It felt very out-of-place in terms of tone. I would have preferred a different book scene like the one in which Mary Poppins and Mrs. Corry paste the gingerbread stars to the sky. I kept waiting for that one since it seemed to follow the way the story was shaping up, but it never happened. I also missed the movie number “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” at the end – which I think would have been a fine substitute for the slightly-odd, massive spinning umbrella and the little stick-lights that the ensemble waved around. I was hoping for something like the Lion King Broadway number “One by One,” where actors moved into the audience flying birds on poles, a setup that might suit kite-flying. Another minor quibble I had was the renaming of Miss Lark’s Andrew (the lapdog) to Willoughby, the name of a character who is a perfectly good-hearted mutt in the books and delightful in his own right. I understand why (confusion with “Miss Andrew” the character) but it took me out of the play every time the “dog” was on stage.
Overall I had a magical time at the musical and it was easy to appreciate the story work that Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey, The Young Victoria) put into the script. Go see it if you can; I highly recommend reading the books first but it should be easy to enjoy no matter what past Poppins encounters you may have had.