A spoonful of new songs makes Mary Poppins go down

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Madeline Trumble (center, blue dress) as Mary Poppins, Con O’Shea (center, gold vest) as Bert and Tonya Thompson (center, orange dress) as Miss Corry perform Matthew Bourne’s rousing choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in the touring proudction of Mary Poppins at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Below: Trumble and O’Shea step in time. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Some are Shakespeare purists. Or Chekhov purists. Or Star Wars purists. Their simple message is: don’t mess with the original. I happen to be a Mary Poppins purist. Not the original P.L. Travers books – I found them harsh and far from enchanting. No, I’m a purist when it comes to the 1964 Disney film that boasted two remarkable things (and countless other simply wonderful things): the screen debut of a perfectly cast Julie Andrews in the title role and a thoroughly charming original score by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Andrews and the Shermans all walked away with Academy Awards and, several years later when, at 4 years old, I saw a re-release of the film in my first time out at a movie theater, it also won my lifelong devotion.

All of that personal preamble is to say that I approached the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh stage adaptation with cautious enthusiasm. The show opened in London in 2004 before heading to Broadway in 2006, where it closed last March.

I saw the show on Broadway and pretty much hated it. The lavish sets and costumes by Bob Crowley were jaw dropping, and some of co-director Matthew Bourne’s choreography was fun. But what ruined it all for me was the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and the damage done to some of the original Sherman songs from the movie. Another big turn off was the bizarre direction of the actress playing Mary Poppins to play the magical governess as if she were a freaky android with overly perfect elocution and a personality devoid of charm and warmth. Could director Richard Eyre be to blame? I had to think so.

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At long last, the touring Mary Poppins has arrived in San Francisco (in a reversal of the usual pattern, the show made it to San Jose long before San Francisco) as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre.

Somewhat simplified and stripped down for the tour, this production (directed by Anthony Lyn) is actually more rewarding than the Broadway version. It’s still a hodge-podge mess of the movie and Travers and pop psychology and strained efforts to make something unique out of something that was already unique. But somehow there’s some breathing room here for some charm to squeak through.

At the helm of the charm brigade is Berkeley native Madeline Trumble as Mary Poppins. This Mary actually has a twinkle in her eye and some warmth in her smile. There’s still something arch in the way the character is directed, but Trumble, who sings with the lilt of an operetta star, conveys a sense of loving mischief, which is useful in the role.

Trumble gets some assistance in the charm department from Con O’Shea-Creal as Bert, the sidewalk artist/chimney sweep. His dance moves in the “Step in Time” number (mostly intact from the movie) steal the show, and his much-heralded tap dance around the proscenium frame really is breathtaking.

The best moments in the show involve the original songs. The aforementioned “Step in Time” is a showcase for Bourne’s choreography, as is “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which is by far the most successful adaptation of an original song. The spirit of the original is still there and used as a foundation, while a song like “Spoonful of Sugar,” now set in a ridiculously destroyed kitchen, just flounders.

Among the cut songs are “Sister Suffragette, “The Life I Lead,” “Stay Awake,” “I Love to Laugh” and “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” In their place are mostly dull songs for Mrs. Banks (“Being Mrs. Banks”), Mr. Banks (“Precision and Order,” which is not nearly as crisp as “The Life I Lead”) and Mr. Banks’ childhood nanny, Miss Andrew (“Brimstone and Treacle”), as well as a loathsome nursery nightmare (“Playing the Game”) and a too-vague stab at inspiration that’s nowhere near as eloquent or inspiring as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (“Anything Can Happen”). The new material is respectful and, on paper, it makes sense. But the songs just don’t have the panache or music hall enthusiasm of the Sherman originals, especially when they sit side by side.

With my initial horror at the new songs/adapted songs behind me, I was able to watch the touring production with bemusement. I don’t like the new material any better, but I did admire the touring cast and the enthusiasm with which they approach the material. Broadway seemed cold and machine-like, but the tour has some life in it, and the opening-night audience, which was full of families with children, seemed delighted. Perhaps the young people who experience Mary Poppins first through the stage version will look at the movie and only see what’s missing or dated, whereas I will always see the movie as the purest form – sorry, Mrs. Travers – of the Poppins magic.

Mary Poppins continues through May 12 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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