Mary Poppins

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Mary Poppins

Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ, May 28, 2017

Reviewed by Chip Deffaa for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Matthew Murphy

Mark Evans & Elena Shaddow and cast

If you’re looking for an enjoyable musical for the whole family, Paper Mill Playhouse’s big, bright, handsomely mounted production of Mary Poppins is more satisfying than many productions currently on Broadway, with ticket prices significantly lower than on Broadway. The stage adaptation of Mary Poppins (which enjoyed a long run on Broadway) has always been a good show—rather than a truly great show—with moments of real magic. The book and score are uneven. But, there is still a good deal to savor. And Paper Mill has done as effective a production of this property as any regional theater could ever hope to do. The glorious, big production numbers—the best-loved numbers from the terrific 1964 Disney film—are carried off with such elan, you’ll likely overlook—of forgive—the parts of the show that don’t quite work.

Elena Shaddow

Director Mark S. Hoebee has found a perfect actress to play Mary Poppins: Elena Shaddow. She was irresistible—one of the most appealing leading ladies I’ve ever seen in many years of attending Paper Mill shows—when she starred in its production of Carnival. In this production—from the moment she comes flying in, in that familiar red outfit—she finds all that is to be found in the role of the world’s most perfect nanny. (And, the utterly convincing flying effects—props to Flying by Foy—will delight children and adults alike; I could not see any wires, ever.) I relished her performance from first note to last—just the right mix of warmth and strictness, with the character maintained superbly throughout.

Shaddow is well supported by a large company: some 30 actors on stage, plus 16 musicians in the pit. The costumes, the settings, the lighting, the special effects—all are impressive. It’s a wonderfully colorful and often high-spirited production. And the peak moments convey so vividly the joys that are possible in life, the audience responds to those moments with tremendous enthusiasm. The well-cast players, including Mark Evans as Bert, Adam Monley as George Banks, Jill Paice as Winnifred Banks, Abbie Grace Levi and John Michael Pitera (at the performance I saw) as the Banks children, Liz McCartney as Miss Andrew, Jack Sippel as Neleus, Danielle K. Thomas as Mrs. Curry, and Bill Nolte as Admiral Boom, perform with verve.

Mark Evans & cast

The stage musical Mary Poppins is also a vivid reminder of just how difficult—and just how rare—it is to create a truly great musical. It is based on first-rate source materials—the famed original Mary Poppins stories by P. L. Travers, and the justly celebrated Disney film—but it not as rewarding or as fully realized as they are.

The film (which was produced by Walt Disney and directed by Robert Stevenson) is sheer perfection from beginning to end—an ever-inspiring source of magic and wonder. I still remember the joy I felt when I first saw it at the Warner Theater in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Like many kids, I was soon singing that film’s memorable  songs (written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman): “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” Feed the Birds,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Step in Time,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” And those terrific, spirit-lifting  numbers (well staged at Paper Mill by director Hoebee and choreographer Denis Jones) are the high points of the current stage production.

However, the stage musical’s libretto (by Julian Fellowes) is not as satisfying as the film’s screenplay (by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi). And the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe don’t come close to the quality of the film’s original songs by the Sherman brothers (who also wrote the songs for such hit films as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Charlotte’s Web, and The Aristocats, among others). The new songs periodically bring the show down.

The 1964 film is generally acknowledged to be one of the all-time great film musicals—the greatest of the films Walt Disney produced in his long career. Almost everyone loved it. The one significant exception was author P. L. Travers. She didn’t think Disney did justice to her books, and she didn’t get along with Disney, personally. She would not permit Disney to make a film sequel. And, when she finally agreed to let producer Cameron Mackintosh do a stage adaptation, she said that she did not want any Americans—particularly those responsible for the 1964 film—writing the script or additional  songs. (The stage adaptation was allowed to use songs from the movie, but she did not want the writers of those songs to write additional ones for the stage version.) And that led to bringing in British writers Julian Fellowes, George Stiles, and Anthony Drewe, whose contributions often seem serviceable rather than inspired.

Chip Deffaa

Chip Deffaa is the author of 16 published plays and eight published books, and the producer of 24 albums. For 18 years he covered entertainment, including music and theater, for The New York Post. In his youth, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is a graduate of Princeton University and a trustee of the Princeton "Tiger" magazine. He wrote and directed such Off-Broadway successes as "George M. Cohan Tonight!" and "One Night with Fanny Brice." His shows have been performed everywhere from London to Edinburgh to Seoul. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society, NARAS, and ASCAP. He’s won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, the IRNE Award, and a New Jersey Press Association Award. Please visit: