The shoemaker’s children may have no shoes, but the nanny’s kids are getting the “spit-spot” treatment.
“I’ve used some of Mary Poppins’s lines on my own children,” admitted Patricia Hurley, who plays the “practically perfect” flying nanny of the title in “Mary Poppins” at Olney Theatre Center this holiday season. “That was a positive: I’m going to learn some parenting skills from Mary Poppins.”
And so, while an east wind blows her umbrella-clutching character onto the Olney Mainstage, Hurley—a Catholic University alumna who last flew at Olney in “Peter Pan” before taking a career break to start a family—balances her roles as actor and mother with aplomb.
“‘Children who lose their temper will lose everything in the end,’” she intoned in the perfectly rendered Received Pronunciation that is a Mary Poppins trademark. “Oh, and, ‘In that, as in so many other things, your information is faulty.’—I used that on my daughter the other day.
“Or in the ‘Feed the Birds’ scene: ‘When will you learn to look past what you see?’” she added. “Because you want to raise your children to have an awareness and empathy for other people.”
And therein lies the crux of this holiday production—and the place where it falls away from the movie. Olney’s “Mary Poppins” is modern without necessarily meaning to be; it looks within and finds, ultimately, the story of a family that is flawed but loving, and ready to learn from mistakes and move on.
Not that it doesn’t hew to the magic of the movie. The original music and lyrics by the Sherman Brothers are showstoppers when sung by the “practically perfect” Hurley and an extraordinarily talented cast, and like the movie, the musical features the characters and situations first created in 1934 in a series of children’s books by Mary L. Travers.
“Mary Poppins” the musical—with its book by pre-Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes and new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe—debuted in London’s West End in 2004 and came to Broadway two years later. Olney’s production, with the Broadway show’s illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer and his assistant Robert Ramirez in charge of stagecraft and illusions, features the heart of the books, the magic of the movie and the song-and-dance numbers of the stage show.
“If you had to do a Venn diagram of the books, the movie and this musical,” said director Jason King Jones, “there’s a good chunk of crossover.”
Jones, who said he grew up watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on television every Sunday evening, was mesmerized by the mix of live action and animation he saw in “Mary Poppins.” “Who doesn’t love dancing penguins?” he laughed.
But now the tale of a dad under pressure, a frazzled mom and kids acting out in response to being ignored resonates with King as a parent. “As a father of two kids, I relate very distinctly to this family story,” he said. “I think the book writers made that the heart of the piece. Mary’s there to help the family find their love again.”
Which she does, with the help of chimney sweep Bert (played to perfection at Olney by triple threat extraordinaire Rhett Guter), a gaggle of puppets, some magical effects and an ensemble of 14 actors, singers and dancers providing everything from pearls of wisdom to comic relief as they careen around the stage. All the excitement—and chimney sweeping—is a backdrop for the life lessons Mary Poppins imparts to Michael and Jane Banks.
“She gives them a different way of seeing the world, another way of embracing imaginative thinking,” said Jones. “She’s challenging them to see the world afresh, to see the opportunities around them rather than be bound by the rules they think they have to be following.”
Which is something this show might do as well, serving as the spoonful of sugar that helps families be patient and understanding with each another. All the beloved songs are here—“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Chim Cher-ee,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”—plus eye-popping dance numbers, a boatload of laughs and magical moments that will leave children (and maybe some adults) wondering “How did they do that?” There’s a something-for-everyone quality to this production that makes it an ideal holiday show for kids and grownups alike.
“We want this to be a story for families,” said Jones. “It’s about the heart of the Banks family. Mary is there to save them and bring them back together.”
“Mary Poppins” runs through Jan. 1 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. For tickets, which range from $43 to $80, call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.