Saturday, April 11, 2009

1000th Performance of "Mary Poppins"

My brother-in-law, four-year-old niece and I watched this musical on Thursday, while my sister and mum stayed with the baby. New Amsterdam, on 42th Street, is a beautiful old theater, built in a grand style, embellished in an ornate manner. This "new" musical, presented by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, is based on the stories of P. L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The book is by Julian Fellowes. The producer is Thomas Schumacher who announced at the beginning of our show that it was the 1000th performance. 

Scarlett Strallen played Mary Poppins. Though Mary Poppins is supposed to resemble her author's childhood Dutch doll, Stallen came off as robotic at times, a fatal problem since Poppins is the complex heart of the story. The boyish Australian Adam Fiorentino, who was making his Broadway debut, played Bert, the chimney sweep and artist, with great verve and warmth. Rebecca Luker was an immensely likable Mrs. Banks, and revealed her vulnerability nicely. Gorge Banks was played by Daniel Jenkins whose singing constituted the most boring moments of the show. The two child-actors who played Jane and Michael Banks were polished and forgettable. 

The star of the show was the sets. The house on Cherry Tree Lane was open in front, showing hallway, staircase, living room and study. It moved back to give way to the children's attic bedroom lowered from the top, and to the kitchen raised from below the stage. The rooftop, where Mary Poppins met Bert to gaze at stars, was also lowered from the top. All these sets were cleared for the engaging full-company song-and-dance numbers, like"Jolly Holiday," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Temper, Temper," "Let's go fly a Kite." The dancing in "Step in Time" was particularly exciting and inventive. 

Michael Lassell wrote a fascinating piece on P. L. Travers in the playbill. Extracts:

Pamela Lyndon Travers, as she was fully known in her adult life, was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia, in 1899 . . . . She took her professional name--Travers was her father's first name--during a brief stint as a dancer and actor. She left Australia permanently in 1924, after which she lived principally in England, but with periods in Ireland and the U. S. (for a time with the Navajo).

. . . The child fantasist grew up to become quite self-sufficient, very much an "independent woman," and years ahead of her time. To quote from Caitlin Flanagan's 2005 New Yorker piece, "Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it . . . [and as] she approached forty, she decided that she wanted a child . . . . [So she adopted] an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother."

[Jee: My lesbian alarm went off, and a little googling turned up a Sunday Times review of Valerie Lawson's biography. The review says that her relations with men were apparently platonic, but she shared a cottage in Sussex with two friends in what may or may not be a lesbian relationship.]

After leaving Australia, where she supported herself as journalist, Travers matured into a poet, critic, and essayist, and "a serious writer" of fiction and non-fiction books. Her circle of acquaintances included William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot, and her personal interests ran to mythology and mysticism (she was a longtime disciple of guru G. I. Gurdjieff). PLT reduced her alias to its initials to disguise her gender, hoping to escape the dismissive stereotype of the lightweight authoress.

. . . That Mary Poppins is so widely considered a loving caregiver is one of the central mysteries of the book. Jane and Michael Banks are simultaneously devoted to her and terrified of displeasing her. Far from rosy-cheeked and flirtatious, as she seems from the film, the literary Poppins is described as strict, stern, remote, and rigid--and she can stop a child in its muddy tracks with her blue-eyed glare.

And that is the Mary Poppins I remember from the books which I found in public libraries and loved as a child. She appeals to my need to be disciplined, my need for Someone to Tell Me What To Do.


Patricia Markert said...

Dear Jee,

I love the no nonsense nature of Mary Poppins, and was fascinated to learn that Travers was courted in person by Walt Disney to adapt the stories into his film. She required only one thing, no animation. I believe that she walked out of the theatre when she saw that they did not honor her request. I think the movie would have been much better without it, ( I mean the long digression into the painting come to life, with the dancing penguins and what not. The special effects of the hat rack disappearing into her hand bag, etc are fine.) and a more reasonable length.

Spit spot! Well begun is half done. These are the things I remember her saying.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Disneyfication is, correctly, a term of disapprobation. Thanks for the memories, Patty.