Mary Poppins has, since P.L. Travers created her in 1934, captured the imagination of generations of both children and adults. Best known to modern audiences through the 1964 Disney movie, the amazing nanny has been brought to life on stage in the musical Mary Poppins, the last production of the season at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.
Book writer Julian Fellowes has taken material from both the movie and the books to create a new, yet familiar, version of the well-known story. The Banks family is slowly coming undone: father George, surrendering family ties for the stresses of business success; mother Winifred, wanting to share her husband’s burden but feeling shut out; and children Jane and Michael, hungry for parental love and attention. Into their lives comes Mary Poppins, the nanny who floats down from the skies to help them realize what is truly important. Along the way, there are encounters with eccentric neighbors, shop customers, living statuary, the Bird Woman, chimney sweeps galore, the fearsome nanny Miss Andrew, and most importantly Bert, the jack-of-all-trades who is the audience’s guide to the world of Cherry Tree Lane.
The production incorporates many of the songs created by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman for the 1964 movie, including the touching “Feed the Birds,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” augmented by additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Styles and Drewe also fill out the score with fitting new songs, including “Being Mrs. Banks,” “Practically Perfect,” and the anthemic “Anything Can Happen.”
Paper Mill’s Producing Artistic Director, Mark S. Hoebee, has gathered a superb cast and created an atmosphere of sheer delight. In this, he is ably assisted by choreographer Denis Jones, who comes up with two show-stopping numbers: the energetic tap dancing of “Step in Time,” the chimney sweeps’ dance on the rooftops; and the dizzy, whirling madhouse of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” in which the cast manipulates the 34 letters of the title into a variety of other words and phrases. Musical director and conductor Meg Zervoulis leads one of the best-sounding orchestras I’ve ever heard at the Paper Mill.
Of course, one cannot ignore the outstanding contributions of Paper Mill’s creative team: Timothy R. Mackabee’s fine Edwardian-era sets; Leon Dobkowski’s costumes, running the gamut from the muted clothing of the Banks family to the soft pastels of the park-goers in the “Jolly Holiday” number, to the brash and bright colors of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and the lighting and sound designs of Charlie Morrison and Randy Hansen, respectively.
Elena Shaddow, playing the title role, is indeed practically perfect in every way: a gifted actress with a gorgeous voice who, with deceptive ease, makes one forget Julie Andrews’ film performance. To see her performance is a major reason to see this show. However, the actors in all the lead roles are equally well cast: Mark Evans’ Bert, who opens the show and is our guide throughout; Adam Monley as the harried head of the Banks family; Jill Paice, radiating with compassion and resilience as Mrs. Banks; and (at this performance) Abbie Grace Levi and John Michael Pitera as the Banks children. Also outstanding in minor roles are Dierdre Friel and Blakely Slaybaugh as the Banks family servants; Danielle K. Thomas as Mrs. Corry; Sean Quinn as the Park-keeper; and Liz McCartney in the dual roles of the Bird Woman, and the terrifying Miss Andrew.
The Paper Mill Playhouse has, for its final production this season, come up with a summery, magical musical that will enthrall and delight both the young, and the young-at-heart. I can think of no better way to spend time this June than by visiting number 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London in the company of the Banks family, and the incomparable nanny who changes their lives. I heartily recommend that you see Mary Poppins!
Mary Poppins is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through June 25th. For tickets and information, visit www.papermill.org