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By Jenn McKee
Posted: Oct. 25, 2012 at 5:42 a.m.
Part of the inherent appeal of seeing a fanciful children's story like P. L. Travers' "Mary Poppins" – now playing at the Fisher Theater – adapted for the stage is the promise of seeing delicious feats of theater magic in action. The kind of stage magic that makes your four and a half year old ask, at intermission, "How did she fly?" and makes adults recall the sense of wonder they experienced in the everyday world when they were children themselves.
The stage musical version of "Poppins," despite its flaws, occasionally achieves this, building on the Richard and Robert Sherman songs featured in the 1964 film adaptation, with additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and a book by Julian Fellowes.
But you have to wonder why a show seemingly aimed at children has a running time of more than two and a half hours, as well as a creepy, seemingly wholly unnecessary number ("Playing the Game") that features toys taking revenge on the children who play roughly with them.
As this last point should indicate, those expecting to see a show that hews closely to Travers' book or the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke film are bound to be disappointed. Instead, it's as though the songs and story elements from both have been shuffled and thrown skyward, with some not making the cut (Mary's Uncle Albert, who's laughing causes him to float in the air) and others (a fearsome nanny and a sweet store from George Banks' youth, and dancing park statues) added in – usually not to much benefit.
Yet the chimney sweeps' "Step in Time" is precisely the pulsing showstopper you'd expect it to be (it's easily the production's highlight); Bob Crowley's Tony Award-winning scenic design is a marvel; and U-M grad Madeline Trumble (Mary) provides the show with a plucky backbone, thanks to a performance that makes the title character as compelling as she is inscrutable (not to mention Trumble's out-of-this-world vocals).
Matthew Bourne's spirited choreography often works hand-in-hand with Natasha Katz's meticulously plotted lighting design during scene changes, and the ensemble does fantastic work during the larger numbers.
But moments like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" – which takes place in a weirdly menacing candy store – made me wonder, "Why is this here?" The answer is, because it's a great, ridiculously catchy song from the film; and although the number gets better as it progresses, there's still the nagging sense that the show's creators struggled to figure out precisely how to work it in. And it shows.
Still, seeing those moments of stage magic, and hearing beloved "Poppins" songs performed well, is the carrot that will lure many theatergoers into the Fisher during the show's run. And my four year old did, in fact, enjoy the show a good deal. But late in the second act, she asked me a few times, "Is this the end?" I'd wondered that a few times myself.
SHOW DETAILS: "Mary Poppins" continues at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, daily through Oct. 28. Tickets: $34+. For information: 313-872-1000 or www.BroadwayinDetroit.com.
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