By Manning Harris
“Magical” is the word that comes to mind when thinking of Aurora Theatre’s new production of “Mary Poppins,” and that’s only appropriate, because magic is the world’s most famous nanny’s stock-in-trade.
But I’m speaking not so much of her ability to fly (which she has) or of chimney sweeps who can dance on ceilings (which they can); but rather the magic of being able to express and receive love, and the ability to believe in oneself and the power of the possible. By any reasonable measure, these qualities are magical, and it’s Mary’s ability to communicate these wonders that gives the show its transcendence.
You may recall that Australian-British novelist P. L. Travers wrote a series of “children’s books,” and Walt Disney purchased the film rights and made the iconic 1964 film with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Then Disney Theatrical and Cameron Mackintosh acquired the stage rights and produced the show in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006, where it enjoyed a long run.
The original music and lyrics are by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and the book is by Julian Fellowes.
Aurora’s dazzling, colorful version, directed seamlessly yet with assiduous attention to detail by Justin Anderson, will run through August 31. More credits will follow.
But first, there’s Mary herself. She can glide through the air with the greatest of ease. Got work or family problems? They haven’t got a chance with Mary Poppins on your side. She is “the perfect embodiment of the outwardly prim nanny with the free-thinking mind,” says the U.K.’s Herald. Where does she come from? Who knows? Mary is a mystical, magical, benevolent force, whose ways are ultimately unknowable. These metaphysical qualities help give the play a compelling resonance. That’s a highfalutin way of saying she’s “practically perfect in every way.”
Here she’s played with charm and ease by Galen Crawley, who also possesses a lovely, versatile singing voice. It’s so nice to see this actress in the title role in this big show at the glamorous Aurora. She has given a series of fine performances in Atlanta recently; and she makes this role her own.
Bert, the carefree chimney sweep, Cockney-of-all-trades, and Mary’s BFF is played to perfection by Andy Meeks, who projects a quality of joy that is well-nigh irresistible. His singing and dancing seem effortless, and his scenes with Mary are delightful.
Perhaps you know that the East Wind has taken Mary to the Banks household in London; father George (William S. Murphey) is beset with his responsibilities at his bank job, even as he and his wife Winifred (Liza Jaine) are raising their children, who can be problematic with nannies. Jane and Michael (the children) are played superbly by Mabel Tyler and Joseph Masson; they are the young performers I saw, and on alternate nights the actors are Sarah Carroll and Benjamin Harding. I have every reason to believe they are equally impressive and professional.
I’m not going to give the plot; I will say that Mary comes and goes as she sees fit. During one of her absences a certain Miss Andrew (Heidi Cline McKerley), the nanny from Hades, makes the kids and the parents appreciate Mary Poppins all the more. Remember “Brimstone and Treacle”? When Mary returns, she—no, you must see the show and discover that yourself!
Speaking of the show, it is huge: 28 cast members and an enormous, indispensable production staff. I simply cannot mention everyone, but a few more cast members include Admiral Boom (Googie Uterhardt), Mrs. Brill/The Bird Woman (Jessica DeMaria), Robertson (Dan Ford), Von Hussler (Stuart W. Schleuse), Miss Corry (Xylina Stamper), Miss Lark (Hillary Paige), and Fannie (Shelli Delgado).
Some of those “indispensables” include Ann-Carol Pence (music director) and 11 live musicians, Jen MacQueen (choreographer), Shannon Robert (set design), Daniel Terry (sound design), Mary Parker (lighting design), and glorious costumes by Sydney Roberts. The producing artistic director is Anthony P. Rodriguez.
If you bring children (and you should), know that Aurora’s “Mary Poppins” runs about two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission. The first act, though lovely, seems just a tad long; the second act flies by like a shot. “Mary” is a consistently overachieving entertainment. This show marks the beginning of Aurora’s 19th season, and we congratulate one and all. The company’s reputation, as well as their audience, has skyrocketed in recent years. They are a mighty force in Atlanta’s theatre scene.
If you think “Mary Poppins” just a children’s show, I must disagree. Practically every song and line has a deeper metaphysical meaning, and it’s a positive, life-enhancing message. You just have to listen—and look. There’s more to this show than “Supercalifragilisticexpialicocious,” even though that is great fun.
Come to think of it, that may be Mary’s central message to all of us—that we’re here to love each other and have fun. Revolutionary, wouldn’t you say?
For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.com.