Review by Barbara Mehlman
16 Nov 2006

I've always had a love-hate relationship with the Disney Corporation, but I rarely spent much time thinking about it -- until now. It came back in a rush after I saw the gorgeous production of "Mary Poppins" with, unfortunately, a very ordinary star.

The love part started when Disney took a chance on New York, and spent $34million to renovate the crumbling New Amsterdam Theatre, located on 42nd St. -- the first street of a decaying Theatre District that included prostitutes, the homeless, and porno shops, along with a bunch of historic theaters that were barely standing.

People avoided the area as they passed through this once-great section of New York, but Disney was the first to help bring it back, and in cooperation with the New 42nd Street Organization, lured others to follow his lead -- and they did in large numbers.

Today the street now boasts a sumptuous American Airlines Theatre (formerly the Selwyn) that houses the best that the Roundabout Theatre Organization has to offer, the New Victory Theatre for children, the re-restored Hilton Theatre (originally the Lyric and Apollo), and a 25-screen Loew's Multiplex (the Empire and Liberty Theatres), as well as BB King's Blues Club, an Internet Café, Madame Tussaud's, and a dozen fast-food places that are clean and safe.

The spillover to the other streets as you walk uptown is evident on every block, and much of this we owe to Disney. So why the "hate" part? It's the company's approach to theater that distresses me. "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Tarzan" are all merely merchandising vehicles, created primarily as a launching pad for toys, dolls, and theme-park rides.

This business strategy makes the musicals the stars -- the actors are commodities. The radio commercials don't even mention who plays the role of Mary! If ever there was a break-out star from any of Disney's productions, it was Heather Headley in "Lion King." There hasn't been another one since. And so it goes with "Mary Poppins."

Ashley Brown, as most people are saying, is no Julie Andrews. Well of course she isn't. No one is, and that criticism is irrelevant. What is relevant though, is that the actor who plays Mary ought to have some magical spark, and Brown, though lovely, sweet-voiced, and charming, is terribly ordinary.

Julian Fellowes' book, however, is surprisingly honest in its handling of bratty children and a troubled marriage. Adhering closely to P. L. Travers' novels, there is substance to this story not found in the film version. Rebecca Luker and Daniel Jenkins are superb as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, and their marital woes and George's painful childhood go far in making this story interesting to grownups.

Gavin Lee gives a jubilant performance as Bert (worthy successor to Dick Van Dyke), as do Jane Carr as Mrs. Brill (the cook), and Ruth Gottschall as Miss Andrew (George's sadistic nanny).

The sets, as you would expect, are imaginative and complicated, an engineering feat to be sure, the choreography inventive and spirited, and the music. . . well . . . supercallifragiliistic -- you know. "Mary Poppins" will play forever, just like Disney's other shows, with unknown actors shuffled through the roles like interns. And anyone with a pretty face and a pleasant voice can be Mary.

Most children, however, really don't know the difference between great and mediocre performances, and they will love the show, as will you because, in the end, you'll enjoy seeing your children have such a good time.

Tickets, or course, are difficult to get right now, but by January or February, when things are slow in the Theatre District, and New York is gray and dreary, you should be able to snag a few for your family. One word of caution though: no children under 10. It will not only bore the little ones, it might also scare them.

(Barbara Mehlman)

BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "Handsome, homily-packed and rather tedious show."

JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "It is a roof-raising, toe-tapping, high-flying extravaganza."

CLIVE BARNES for NEW YORK POST says, "Mary Poppins was fine as a Disney movie and is even better as this Broadway musical."

MICHAEL SOMMERS for STAR-LEDGER says, "While the energetic Sherman Brothers parts of the score are enjoyable, the cluttered musical isn't as wonderful as hoped."

LINDA WINER for NEWSDAY says, "A quaint, muddled, beautiful-looking musical with plenty of spectacle but even more emotional distance."

ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "What's missing is inspiration, the imaginative spark that snaps a musical to life and makes the audience go 'Wow!'"

JACQUES LE SOURD for JOURNAL NEWS says, "This show is indeed, to quote one of its sparkling new songs and a self-appraisal by Mary Poppins, Practically Perfect. So, go."

PETER MARKS for WASHINGTON POST says, "Anyone hoping that this show...would provide much in the way of robust musical pleasure or emotional sustenance is likely to find it a wee bit of a letdown."

MICHAEL KUCHWARA ofor ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "Watching 'Mary Poppins' a little like eating an entire box of expensive chocolates — all by yourself. You may end up feeling a bit overstuffed, but, boy, the experience will be fun. Tasty, too."

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Star Ledger - NewsDay - The Record - Journal News - Washington Post - Associated Press

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