Sunday, November 25, 2018

Mary Poppins: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It's been many years since we saw the Disney movie version of "Mary Poppins." What is surprising is how little we remember: Julie Andrews flying across the stage like Peter Pan, Dick van Dyke and his Cockney accent dancing like Donald O'Connor...what else? Nothing else. The essence of a Disney film: sing, dance and have a good time.

But the original P.L. Travers stories, from which Mary Poppins was taken, reveal a darker underside. For Travers, Mary wasn't Julie Andrews at all, but a character closer to Eliza Dolittle with plenty of rage against the Victorian machine. In the current San Francisco Playhouse version, El Beh gives us a far less saccharine Mary Poppins, and the results are both intriguing and fun.

We have seen El Beh in several previous roles and she has been a show stopper every time. As Mary Poppins, however, she is somewhat restrained, relying on unexplained nanny magic to bring a touch of fun to the proscribed lives of the two children on Cherry Tree Lane. The children (we saw Ruth Keith and David Rukin, both excellent) could use a little love. They are only too happy to have statues come to life and chimney sweeps pull kites out of bags.

As for the chimney sweep, the Dick van Dyke of old, Wiley Naman Strasser is terrific. He is the working man, the lower-station Englishman who, since he knows he will never be more than a tradesman, has learned them all. He sweeps chimneys, paints portraits and plays his accordion, ukulele and toy piano despite being stuck on a rooftop or in a chimney. The only thing he doesn't have on that roof is a fiddle.

As for the rooftops, let us say here that in many years of watching shows performed in front of Nina Ball's sets, this one eclipses them all. The elaborate chimney tops which turn into a Busby Berkeley stairway, the brilliant moveable flats of children's room, living room and bank office, all done with a Broadway-sized cast on a considerably smaller stage, may be the real stars of the show.

Director Susi Damilano knows every square inch of that stage. When the flats rolled around we were afraid they would knock a dancer into the audience.  Not to worry. It must be magic.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "Mary Poppins" Four Stars. We loved the brilliant set, the adults and kids and the revamped story. During the Christmas season it is great to have a show adults will love as much than their children. Special credit must be given to Katrina Lauren McGraw whose crystal voice on "Feed the Birds" and Grandmother-of-Miss-Ratched role as the evil Miss Andrew are highlights of both acts.

It's a long run -- come see Mary fly.

"Mary Poppins"
San Francisco Playhouse
Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through January 12

☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

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