Twenty years ago, it was “The Lion King.” Today it’s “Frozen.” Back in prehistoric times, when I was a youngster, it was “Mary Poppins.”
Of all the musicals in the Disney repertoire, the story of magical nanny Mary Poppins and her chimney-sweeping sidekick, Bert, has always been the one for me. The 1964 film version starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke appeared when I was 4. So when the Broadway telling of P.L. Travers’ stories finally appeared in 2006 (with new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe), I felt quite precocious singing along to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and other original songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman.
But apparently I’ve been so high on “A Spoonful of Sugar” that I missed the bitter medicine that permeates the Victorian saga of George and Winifred Banks and their darling children, so clearly influenced by the tales of Peter Pan and Ebenezer Scrooge.
Now, thanks to Aurora Theatre’s delightful and delicious new production, which starts almost as forebodingly as “Sweeney Todd,” I’ve come to appreciate some of the darker ideas that permeate this story of near-ruin and redemption.
However, this is not to say that there isn’t plenty of glee and merriment to be enjoyed while grumpy papa George (William S. Murphey) resolves his issues with his own “Brimstone and Treacle”-spouting nanny, Miss Andrew (a very memorable Heidi Cline McKerley).
Atlanta actress Galen Crawley is quite good as the carpet-bag-carrying Mary Poppins. But next to some of the more over-the-top characters who populate the material, she can seem rather understated. (The notoriously picky, animation-loathing Travers might appreciate Crawley’s restraint.)
Since writing the book for producer Cameron Mackintosh’s adaption of “Mary Poppins,” Julian Fellowes has become widely known as the creator of “Downton Abbey.” Funnily enough, the Bankses’ family cook, Mrs. Brill (Jessica DeMaria), could be TV’s Mrs. Patmore. The scene in which bedlam breaks out in the kitchen is hilarious, and the “Supercalifragilistic” segment inside Miss Corry’s shop is as brightly hued as “Willy Wonka.” (Xylina Stamper’s outsize Miss Corry is pretty fabulous, too.)
A highlight of director Justin Anderson’s Aurora staging is the “Step in Time” number, in which choreographer Jen MacQueen works up a bona-fide barn-burner for Bert (Andy Meeks) and the ensemble. While Liza Jaine makes for a very elegant Mrs. Banks and sings beautifully, who knew that McKerley (who plays several roles) could be a dead ringer for Queen Victoria? (Delightful!)
On the night I caught the show, which with intermission clocks in at almost three hours, the part of wee Jane Banks was played by adorable Mabel Tyler (who recently starred as Charlie in Fabrefaction Theatre Conservatory’s “Willy Wonka”), while the role of Jane’s brother, Michael, was portrayed by the sprightly and expressive Joseph Masson. Indeed, both kids are endearing and precocious.
Sydney Roberts’ colorful, flounce-y costumes are fun and appropriate to the era. Shannon Robert’s sets capture the sprawl of London and the intimacy of Cherry Tree Lane handsomely. The flight scenes aren’t the most ambitious or dazzling, but the universally good cast outshines the labored mechanics.
In the 13 years I’ve covered Aurora, the theater has been on a remarkable journey. After opening last season with a highly acclaimed “Les Miserables” (also directed by Anderson), the Lawrenceville playhouse apparently has another hit on its hands. How cool to think a new generation of theatergoers will be exposed to the silly pleasures of “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and the message of spiritual and psychological transformation. Like Bert, we are all “as lucky as lucky can be.”