The touring production of the stage musical version of Disney's Mary Poppins, co-created by Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera hitmaker Cameron Mackintosh and appearing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Feb. 17, is an odd experience, depending on which version of Mary Poppins you know. If you're mostly familiar with the 1964 film with Julie Andrews, this version jettisons many of the songs, scenes and plot points, creates a completely different conflict for the second act and adds a handful of new characters, including a nemesis for the titular magic nanny. If you're familiar with the movie version's source material though, the stage show is a mixed but sometimes fascinating attempt to find a middle ground between the fantastic-but-deadpan tone of the original Mary Poppins books and the more sweetness-filled film.
A history lesson: As a kid, I had all the Mary Poppins books by Pamela "P.L." Travers, in which the children Jane and Michael Banks are naughty and incorrigible, and Mary Poppins herself is a satire of a stereotypical uptight British nanny, guiding her charges on fantastic adventures without betraying a moment of excitement or interest with the wonders they encounter. (When they meet the Man in the Moon, Mary Poppins is mostly irate he's planning to make some cocoa and take a nap instead of doing his job.) Though Walt Disney himself campaigned mightily to make a film of Travers' work (soon to be the subject of its own film, Saving Mr. Banks, with Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers), Travers herself was deeply disappointed with the resulting film, even though its success brought renewed interest to her work. (The full story is chronicled in this fascinating New Yorker article from a few years back.)
All this backstory is important because the stage version of Mary Poppins takes most of its cues from the original book. The settings (a combination of physical sets and rear-projection) are designed heavily in the style of Mary Rogers' illustrations of the original books, with the Banks household first appearing as a flat picture that folds out to reveal its interior like a pop-up book. The play also borrows from other books in the series, incorporating the character of a living statue of the Greek demigod Neleus (Leeds Hill) and Mary Poppins' (Madeline Trumble's) various methods of arrival and departure from the different books.
Mrs. Banks (Kerry Conte) is made a former actress like Travers, and her arc in the play is changed from the movie's preoccupied suffragette to an overwhelmed housewife unable to speak up for herself. Mr. Banks (Chris K. Hoch) retains the arc of an uptight banker who needs to spend more time with his family, but more is made of his repressed childlike side (along with a thoroughly modern storyline about his risking his job to support a noble small business over a lucrative-but-sketchy moneymaking scheme). At one point late in the play, where Poppins momentarily expresses some affection for young charge Michael (Eli Tokash, who alternates with Zachary Mackiewicz in the role on different nights), he's put off and implores her to "Be cross!"—perhaps a sly jab at the Disney film.
The book for the play is by Julian Fellowes, who also brings his critique of the British class structure to his screenplays for Gosford Park and TV's Downton Abbey. Here, Fellowes suggests that the Banks family is in trouble because they're trying to embrace upper-class tenets: They leave their children to a nanny and fail to notice the magical lower-class beings around them, like Mary Poppins' chimney-sweep paramour Bert (Con O'Shea-Creal). There's also an anti-Mary-Poppins (Karen Murphy) who shows up late in the show with a number called "Brimstone and Treacle" (an homage to Nicholas Nickleby, but for a moment I thought they'd inserted a Dennis Potter reference into a Disney play).
The results, as you might tell, are a bit all over the place, trying to pay homage to the most memorable scenes and Sherman Brothers songs from the film version, while also working in new numbers by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and Fellowes' adaptation of the plot. There were audible claps of recognition from the audience on opening night when the actors broke into the film's signature song, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," but it feels shoehorned into the plot, neither atrocious nor precocious.
The results are never more skewed than with Trumble as Poppins, who looks the part, but often seems more comfortable with the character's moments of Julie Andrews-like warmth than deadpan British nanny-ness. O'Shea-Creal fares the best as Bert; though the limited confines of the stage don't let him achieve the loose-limbed kinetic quality that Dick Van Dyke brought to the role in the film, O'Shea-Creal has a sly, energetic chemistry with the different cast members and brings a wistful quality to his courtship of Mary. (He's also most entertaining in a gravity-defying tap-dance number with his fellow chimney sweeps best described as "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Soot.")
Sometimes the combination of tones can get a bit mixed, such as a number where Mary Poppins brings the children's abused toys to life to teach them a lesson. The lumbering teddy bear from this scene will haunt my nightmares; children under three were banned from the original West End production because of its scariness.
Despite these odd tonal shifts and the fact that the actors are sometimes upstaged by the (admittedly spectacular) scenery and costumes by Bob Crowley, Mary Poppins succeeds at what it sets out to be, a fantastical family musical with a pro-parenting, pro-family message that kids and adults can both enjoy. It will, however, prove to be an odd experience for those who go in with expectations of a straight adaptation of the Disney film, and it will prove almost as odd for those who know the original books. Travers might have preferred this to Disney's film, but if you're really curious, check out the original books for yourself. They're well worth the effort, and they cost less than a theater ticket.