Often tarred as a juggernaut with a monolithic approach to separating parents from their hard-earned cash, Disney has actually spawned an interesting range of musicals over the past decade. There has been the Slavishly Faithful Theme Park Atrocity (Beauty and the Beast), the Teen-Oriented Pop Pageant (Aida), the High Concept Flop (Tarzan) and one artistic success, the Artful Ethnic Spectacle (The Lion King). Now, with Mary Poppins, comes a strange new beast for Uncle Walt’s menagerie: the Integrated Musical That Adults Can Enjoy. At this rate, Disney may well generate its own Sondheim by 2076.
Based equally on the famed 1964 movie and P.L. Travers’s original, darker novel, the story should be familiar: Overworked and emotionally distant parents (Jenkins, Luker) hire an efficient but odd nanny (Brown) to tame beastly brats. Said nanny turns out to be a good witch who teaches the children lessons about laboring cheerfully and obeying authority. Poppins enlists the help of chimney sweep Bert (the feather-footed Lee) and various magically animated toys and statues that may frighten the children, but turn out to be harmless.
Happily, Mary Poppins is not so benign: It’s a smart, dark-hued extravaganza crisply staged by Richard Eyre and wittily choreographed by Matthew Bourne. Julian Fellowes’s droll, economical book establishes surprisingly sympathetic characters and decent dramatic stakes in the family plotline. Of course, if you’re tired and just want to forget about your kids for two hours, they should be mesmerized by Bob Crowley’s looming, eye-popping sets and the flying effects. Hey, it’s Disney: Let it take care of the tykes. — David Cote
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