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The timing is right for Quintessence, Philadelphia’s professional classic repertory theater, to stage Mary Poppins. US families still grappling with pandemic stress are now facing a “tripledemic” winter and looming economic uncertainty. If Mary Poppins was useful for a 1930s family in London, the story of a magical nanny who drops in from the sky to lend a hand to struggling families creates a nice escape for contemporary children and parents.
Quintessence’s production is the theatrical version created in 2004, a collaboration between Disney and Cameron Mackintosh. This production contains everything to look forward to from the 1964 film, including the great song-and-dance numbers like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Chim chim Cher-ee.”
Hanna Gaffney is perfectly suited to play the iconic Mary Poppins: the tone and clarity of her voice resembles that of Julie Andrews. Gaffney embodies everything we expect from the mythical Poppins in both voice and character, delivering all of the classic numbers like “A Spoonful of Sugar” with the energy and enthusiasm of Andrews’s 1964 cinematic performance. Gaffney meets her match in Steve Pacek’s delightful Bert, the lovable chimney sweep, who lets us know that Mary is no ordinary nanny and that to be in her presence means that your luck is about to change.
But the real magic in this production is the innovative staging and choreography, from director Emily Trask and choreographers Adrienne Maitland and Devon Sinclair, who bring the Banks home and their London neighborhood to life. For children raised with CGI technology, used to watching any videos and movies they like on personal devices, watching actors in real time transform a simple black-box stage into a magical world is something to experience. The talented ensemble of actors, in addition to playing multiple roles, are used smartly as silent puppeteers, who animate the children’s nursery and bring toys and other inanimate objects to life.
In act one, highlights include the delightful “Jolly Holiday” in the park with Mary, Bert, and the kids, complete with the statue Neleus (Daniel Miller) who comes to life; in act two, the kite-flying scene with Michael and Jane (played by Ollie Gregorio and Sara Church the night I saw the show) is whimsical and wonderful. Another moment I especially enjoyed was the ensemble portraying Bert’s chimney-sweep brigade in “Step Right Up,” singing and dancing through the theater aisles.
Mary Poppins meets class consciousness?
This version of Mary was written by Julian Fellowes, best-known for Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, who brings his awareness of class in British society to this show’s book. Here, George Banks (Jered McLenigan) is more than simply an absent and distracted father; he gets a story with more depth. We see his strict and strident upbringing from his own nanny Miss Andrews (a wonderful villain played by Brooke Behmke), which fills him with the sense that his worth is tied to his ability to earn and provide. When that ability is threatened, he begins to fall apart and the family’s crisis ensues. Mrs. Banks, too, has a backstory: she was a former actress who gave up the stage to marry and raise a family.
Fellowes's script certainly makes the parents more relatable than the original film versions, but this Mary Poppins update could have gone further to examine and subvert class, privilege, and gender roles. Mr. Banks not only maintains his position as a banker, but gets a quadrupled salary. What if Fellowes had added a scene where Mr. Banks gives his servants an equivalent raise? The man of the house briefly asks Mrs. Banks whether she might want to return to the stage, but she quickly demurs, and we learn no more about her life outside of being a wife and mother.
My children loved Disney stories when they were younger, so I always added my own “happily ever endings” that challenged traditionally subscribed roles. “Cinderella lived happily ever after,” I might say, “because she created her own line of shoes, made from sustainable, locally sourced materials that were both beautiful and comfortable to wear.”
I mention that because if you’re looking for a significant lesson on class roles in Mary Poppins, you’ll need to engage in post-show discussion. But if your aim is a spoonful of holiday fun and cheer, this fine production has everything you need.
What, When, Where
Mary Poppins. Based on the stories of P. L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film. Book by Julian Fellowes, original music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with new songs and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Directed by Emily Trask. Through January 8, 2023, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
There is no mask requirement in the theater.
The Segwick theater is wheelchair-accessible and has an accessible restroom in the lobby. Open captioning will be available for selected performance. For accessibility information, contact the box office at [email protected].
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