An unusual nanny and plenty of whimsy are on hand at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse, where Mary Poppins, based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film, will run through June 25.
Set in the early 1900s, the musical opens with jack-of-all-trades Bert (Mark Evans) announcing that something unusual is imminent. Perhaps it will come when the wind changes. Bert points out a home on Cherry Tree Lane — the Banks home — with a troubled family in need of mending.
Mr. Banks, as his name suggests, is a banker. Pre-occupied with his job, he treats his wife as a means for social advancement and his children as inconveniences to be tolerated. The wife, a former actress, feels frustrated at being subordinated to her husband’s wishes. And the children have wreaked havoc with one nanny after another, causing them to flee the household. The family needs a nanny with special talents and, lo and behold, she descends from the clouds, open umbrella in hand, to work her magic.
It’s Mary Poppins (Elena Shaddow), the take-charge nanny who proclaims herself “practically perfect in every way.” With her flowered hat and carpet bag, she immediately takes matters in hand and begins using her unorthodox methods to win over the Banks children, Jane (Abbie Grace Levi) and Michael (John Michael Pitera). This nanny is firm and knows how to keep children in check — not by terrorizing them, but by introducing them to unforgettable experiences that teach them about kindness and consideration.
The Paper Mill’s staging of the Broadway show is lush and elaborate. Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s well known songs — including “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” ”Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” — are all there, along with additional songs written for the show by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The book by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) adapts elements from the Mary Poppins novels and the Disney movie, and replaces the film’s animated sequences with splashy stage spectacle, including actual magic, colorful sets, and both period and fanciful costumes. Mrs. Banks (Jill Paice) is not a suffragette, as in the film, but an actress who gave up her career to satisfy then-current notions of respectability and run the household her husband has little time for.
Ms. Shaddow captures the essence of Mary Poppins with her stiff-upper-lip bearing and no-nonsense attitude that belies kindness, tenderness, and a psych major’s knowledge of child rearing. She’s in nearly every scene and handily anchors this big, large-cast production. Whether she’s admonishing Michael to close his mouth because he is not a codfish, being chummy with Bert atop the Banks home, pulling impossibly large objects from her carpet bag, or dealing with Mr. and Mrs. Banks, there’s no doubt who is fully in charge. Ms. Shadow commands the stage with authoritative presence, tempered by an ever-present twinkle and a sweet soprano, suggesting she’s not as severe as she appears.
Mr. Evans is incredible as Bert, who serves as narrator, commentator, participant in Mary Poppins’ adventures, and leader of a wildly spirited dance with fellow chimney sweeps in the “Step In Time” production number.
This is the kind of number you can usually see these days only on a Broadway stage. It’s to the Paper Mill and choreographer Denis Jones’ credit that the energy and excitement of the original has been recreated spectacularly, earning the number a huge, deserved ovation on opening night. Combining tap and traditional jazz dance, the performers use their long-handled brushes as props and dance partners, making them integral to their movements. The large chorus makes for a stage filled with amazingly talented singer-dancers.
Another terrific number, “Supercalifragisisticexpialidocious,” is performed by the entire ensemble using cards with letters to spell out the 14-syllable word that can be used to describe anything particularly wonderful. As the pace accelerates, the performers transition into super-speed tempo, amazingly landing in the right spot with each chorus. The number is great fun, and utilizes the ensemble to create a memorable highlight.
In Act II, after Mary Poppins has temporarily departed, Mr. Banks’ former nanny, Miss Andrew (Liz McCartney), turns up to manage the household with an iron hand and complete disregard for the children’s happiness. In her solo, “Brimstone and Treacle,” she enumerates her dark methods of nanny-ing, highlighted by force feeding her charges with castor oil to keep them in line. Ms. McCartney, who delivers a lovely turn as the Bird Woman in Act I, makes a wonderful comic villainess in the style of Cruella De Vil or Maleficent.
Under the direction of Mark S. Hoebee, Mary Poppins is a delightful 2 hours and 45 minutes of comedy, music, dance, and stage magic. It’s a wondrous production to conclude Paper Mill’s 2016-2017 season.
Mary Poppins will run through June 25. Performances are Wednesdays, 7 P.M., Thursdays, 1:30 and 7 P.M., Fridays, 7 P.M., Saturdays, 1:30 & 7 P.M., and Sundays 1:30 & 7 P.M. Tickets start at $30, and may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.PaperMill.org.