Features

Magic of ‘Poppins’

Find familiar songs, amped-up dialogue in Best of Broadway’s version

What does the stage musical version of “Mary Poppins” have in common with the PBS hit show “Downton Abbey”?

We’ll give you the answer later, but first we should list a few other telling facts about this musical smash, which arrives at the INB Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

• The original Broadway production is still packing ’em in, in its sixth year.

• It contains all of the familiar songs from the 1964 Julie Andrews movie, including “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Yet it also includes several new songs, as well as some new characters.

• It conjures up plenty of stagecraft magic, including, of course, a nanny who holds up her umbrella and soars skyward.

• It combines the story from the film with the original stories from P.L. Travers’ classic books, which were quite different in tone.

Which brings us back to the “Downton Abbey” question. The “book” (dialogue) for the stage version was written by Julian Fellowes, who created and wrote “Downton Abbey” and also won an Oscar for “Gosford Park.”

“It’s incredibly well-written,” said Rachel Wallace, who plays Mary Poppins in this national tour, by telephone. “It definitely has all of the music and characters you love from the film. But the characters you met in the film have slightly different journeys. It really stands on its own. And it’s funny – that’s one of the things that Julian Fellowes does so well.”

These differences, often subtle, mean that Wallace never felt intimidated by the looming shadow of Julie Andrews. Wallace, a 2009 acting graduate from the North Carolina School for the Arts, said “our show is its own thing” – and so is this particular flying nanny.

The fact is, Travers was never too crazy about the Disney film version and refused to release the stage rights to Disney. Instead, she granted the rights to the great producer Cameron Mackintosh, on the condition that only English-born writers could work on it and that nobody could be involved from the film version. She did not prohibit use of the film’s songs, however, and Mackintosh later cut a deal with Disney for use of the classic Sherman Brothers music. The new songs, however, were written by an English duo, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

The resulting production “walks a very beautiful and fine line” between the film’s warmth and the strong messages from the books, Wallace said.

Wallace said that her favorite song is “A Spoonful of Sugar,” which she sings, but she also loves to listen to the character of Bert and the kids sing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Wallace also loves floating above the stage with her umbrella.

“It’s the easiest thing I have to do,” she said. “I don’t have to sing or dance. I just have to go along for the ride.”

Even the more skeptical critics have been impressed with the show’s spectacular stagecraft. Ben Brantley of the New York Times said “a spoonful of spectacle makes the medicine go down.”

“The automation in the show is incredible,” Wallace said. “Everything is flying in and flying out. There are so many great magic tricks and reveals. We get applause several times during the show just by what’s happening with the scenery.”

She described the set for the house – at the famous address of Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane – as “like a giant pop-up book.”

Yet the show is not all spectacle. Travers’ nanny has captured the imaginations of generations of children and her appeal shows no signs of flagging.

“It’s a story that’s relevant,” said Wallace. “The father is a banker and he’s worried about losing his job. The idea that an individual could show up on your doorstep and make everything easier, and make everyone communicate better – that’s timeless.”



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