Disney clearly conquered the movie world early on, when in 1937 the studio introduced the first feature-length animated film with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Discovering it had a major hit on its hands, Disney never looked back.
More recently, though, Disney has done equally well at transforming screen hits to the stage, turning its animated movies “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” into long-running Broadway hits. The latest has been Disney’s decision to turn the studio’s 1964 Academy Award-winning movie “Mary Poppins” from big screen to big stage, and discovered what worked so well in the movie theaters had the same magic on stage.
The Broadway hit just completed a run at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, and managed to answer an interesting question. Look at the movie, and you’re likely to marvel at the imagination and creativity that went into the mix of live action and animated fantasy sequences. How to replicate on a stage the wonders of the cinema’s special effects department looks daunting; movies have unlimited potential to take the cinema audiences to fantastical places.
Theater, of course, operates on a different level, and requires far more imagination from audiences than cinema does. The producers ask theater audiences to imagine that which isn’t seen — or simply can’t be replicated.
Disney, though, made it clear in its theatrical recreations of the fantasy worlds of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” that no expense would be spared in wowing an audience on stage. And in “Mary Poppins,” there’s a reminder that going all out on special effects and set designs can pay off in a truly superb production.
Disney was nothing if not ambitious in recreating the story of the magical nanny who floats down from the sky to care for two children in London, whose father seems more concerned about his devotion to his career than he does about being available to his family.
Mary Poppins, of course, has a thing or two to teach the entire family about finding happiness — including the fact that a spoonful of sugar can make the medicine go down more smoothly.
Mary introduces the children to her friend Bert the chimney sweep, and he and Mary have a talent for taking the children on fantastic journeys — scenes brilliantly recreated on stage, as statues in the park come to life, and dance, entertain and thrill the children.
Watching “Mary Poppins” on stage, it’s easy to figure out what made the movie such a long-lasting hit for Disney, and remains an audience favorite today. Who among us would not have been thrilled to have a magical nanny show up at our door one day, one filled with optimism and good spirit, able to sweep us away from an often drab daily existence and instead deliver us to something so much more exciting? Few scenes in the play work as well as when Mary confronts Miss Andrew, the strict and harsh nanny who temporarily replaces her, one determined to use punishments to control the childrens’ behavior? The difference between her approach and that of Mary’s is symbolized by Andrews’ pet bird, which lives a sad life in a cage — until Mary sets it free. Her ultimate goal, of course, is to do the same with the Banks family.
It’s a clever fantasy story, one that still holds up well nearly 50 years after the movie had its debut — and in some ways it almost seems more pertinent today, particularly in the scenes where George Banks had to decide between providing a bank loan to a man with high ambitions but no concrete product — or a small time manufacturer who believes his greatest asset is his hard working employees. George makes his decision — and then immediately comes to regret it, wondering if his decision will cost him his job, and his ability to provide for his family.
Nearly five years into the collapse of the housing market, with bank credit still tight, these scenes likely hold more relevance today than they did in 1964.
So Disney starts with a solid story, and then brings to it some amazing sets — the outside of the Banks home, that opens up to let us inside; the roof of the home, where Bert and his fellow chimney sweeps discover an ideal location to dance and sing; and the park where Mary and Bert take the children on a wondrous journey.
Most impressive is the popular song “Step in Time,” which calls on Bert to walk up the right side curtain, walk upside down on the top of the stage, and then walk back down the left hand curtain. If “Mary Poppins” is all about how a little magic can invigorate our lives, then this scene alone is worth the price of admission.
Not surprisingly, Disney has assembled a first-rate cast, including Con O’Shea-Creal as the cockney-accented Bert, Michael Dean Morgan as George Banks, who assumes life must always be carried forth with precision and order; and Karen Murphy as the villainous Miss Andrews, every child’s nightmare version of a strict supervising adult.
The best, though, is Madeline Trumble, who has the difficult task of recreating a Mary Poppins that millions associate with the ideal performance by Julie Andrews. Trumble makes this Mary her own, and is, to quote from the song, “The Perfect Nanny” — radiant, funny, with a sharp wit and beautiful singing voice.
It seems likely that Disney will continue to find classic movies from its vaults to bring to the stage, and judging from how brilliantly they transformed “Mary Poppins” from screen to stage, in such a genuinely spellbinding way, is seems certain that Broadway will be grateful to Disney for many years to come.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.