‘Mary Poppins’ offers top-drawer performances on a dazzling set

By David Lampe-Wilson
©2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

White River Junction’s Northern Stage enters the holiday season with the musical Mary Poppins and, as seen in a preview, there is a lot to recommend it — performances, costumes, color — but it is an uphill battle for its talented cast.

The ensemble of 'Mary Poppins.' All photos by Rob Strong.

The ensemble of ‘Mary Poppins.’ All photos courtesy Northern Stage. Click photo to launch gallery.

Someone once described a camel as a horse designed by a committee. It would seem that a similar committee is responsible for the stage musical of Mary Poppins, or as it is described in the program: “The Northern Stage Production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins: A Musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film.”

Fans of the Disney movie will encounter major changes, as this is not a direct adaptation from the film but a return to the book series for its inspiration. With a libretto by Julian Fellowes, creator of the hit television series Downton Abbey, we get naughty, unruly charges Jane and Michael Banks (charmingly played by in this production by Caroline Hamilton and Ben Manning, who alternated with Meredith Morhun and Will Stedina), their dysfunctional parents, a back story on the father’s childhood and the fearsome nanny from his past.

For anyone married to the movie version, it’s a case of charm colliding with grim; the tone of the libretto is at odds with the movie’s musical numbers and the two never truly mesh.

From left, Sean Bell, Meredith Morhun, Tony Conaty and Emily Kron.

From left, Sean Bell, Meredith Morhun, Tony Conaty and Emily Kron.

The songs from the film by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (with additional material by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) are injected into various scenes as needed. Major changes include excising Disney’s dancing waiter penguins in favor of a terpsichorean statue for the song “Jolly Holiday,” while Uncle Albert’s tea party is replaced by Mrs. Corry’s circus-themed shop and hitched to the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Despite the uneven grafting of sunny songs onto a somewhat dreary story, performances are uniformly top-drawer.

Emily Kron’s Mary Poppins is crisp, stern and delightful. Is she Julie Andrews? No … but how could we expect her to be? That is a tough act to follow but Kron sings, dances and delivers in her own distinct manner, and before you know it Kron makes Poppins her own.

Sean Bell does yeoman’s work as Bert, the chimney sweep and jack of all trades. Appearing in all major musical numbers, Bell also weaves in and out of the story with innumerable reprises of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” but Bell exudes so much caricature Cockney charm that he never overstays his welcome.

From left, Meredith Morhun, Susan Haefner, Will Stedina, Eric Bunge and, flying high, Emily Kron.

From left, Meredith Morhun, Susan Haefner, Will Stedina, Eric Bunge and, flying high, Emily Kron.

Other standouts include a radiant Susan Haefner, who turns the thankless role of Winifred Banks into a three-dimensional character. Eric Bunge initially confuses George Banks’ stuffed-shirted, gloomy strictness with over-the-top anger, but becomes effective once he is able to modulate the character in Act II by rediscovering his inner kite flyer.

Also, kudos go to Diana DiMarzio, who limns both the outlandish Mrs. Corry in Act I, then returns in Act II as the beastly Miss Andrew; both characters are wonderfully over-the-top.

Director Chad Larabee keeps the production moving and the staging interesting, but considering the number of set changes required, it is not surprising that this production clocks in wearily at nearly three hours. Larabee is ably assisted by choreographer Keith Coughlin, who provides flash and pizzazz just as the story threatens to slip into a dour mood.

Still, the production is a visual treat. Set designer Ken Godstein’s initial palette of blues, browns and grays gives way to splashes of color; his London street scene is enchantingly nestled beneath banks of fluffy clouds and glittering stars. Karen Ann Ledger pulls out all the stops in her cheery parade of Edwardian-style costumes, made even more enchanting topped by Robert Pickens fabulous confection of wigs.

If nothing else, Mary Poppins sends you away with your eyes delightfully dazzled.

“Mary Poppins” continues through Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016 at Northern Stage, The Barrette Center for the Arts, 74 Gates St., White River Junction. Performances: Wednesday through Sunday; no performance Thanksgiving or Christmas Day; some Tuesday performances available – call for details. For tickets and information, click here or call 802-291-9009.

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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