The Young People’s Theatre production of Mary Poppins will get you humming along,
★★★ (out of 4) Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; book by Julian Fellowes; additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh, directed by Thom Allison and choreographed by Kerry Gage. Until Jan. 6 at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. E. youngpeoplestheatre.ca or 416-862-2222
Signs of seasonal change in Toronto: Christmas window displays going up, snow in the forecast and Young People’s Theatre unveiling its holiday show.
This year’s musical entertainment for school audiences (with weekend public performances) is the beloved story of the “uncanny nanny” who straightens out the life of an unhappy family in Edwardian London.
The focus of this production, directed by Thom Allison and choreographed by Kerry Gage, are the musical numbers:
The 14-strong cast are terrific singers and hoofers, whose skills include tumbling and tap (for the show-stopping Step in Time).
Those for whom the 1964 Disney film was a formative experience will have a wonderful time hearing all those great songs sung so well.
And it’s gratifying to know that younger generations are being exposed to their special magic.
Less energy has been expended on the story’s supernatural elements.
While appreciating that the scale here doesn’t allow for Mary to fly in over the audience’s heads (as she does in the stage version that is the basis of this production), there’s something deflating about her just walking into the Banks’ house.
While there are some fun visual effects — glow-in-the-dark canisters popping up out of a kitchen cabinet in A Spoonful of Sugar, Mary’s hat rack emerging improbably from her carpet bag, a kite appearing above the stage — they rely on old-fashioned stage trickery that adds to the production feeling heavy and sometimes dated.
More timely and very welcome is YPT’s approach to casting, which scrambles ethnicity and sometimes gender.
Mary is played with winning crispness by homegrown musical theatre star Vanessa Sears; Mrs. Banks by Jewelle Blackman, in superb voice; and little Michael Banks by Black actress Hailey Lewis (his sister Jane is played by the more traditionally cast, and equally good, Jessie Cox).
It’s great to see performers mostly associated with the Shaw Festival getting a chance to strut their musical theatre stuff off-season: Kyle Blair is perfectly cast as the chimney sweep Bert and has terrific chemistry with Sears’ Mary, while Starr Domingue plays the shop mistress Mrs. Corry with great flair.
This version of the story, rewritten by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes for a 2003 West End revival (a huge and much-revived hit that visited the Royal Alexandra in 2011), puts a lot of focus on the Banks family’s dysfunction.
It paints Mr. Banks (Shane Carty) as a workaholic determined to parent his children as sternly as did his nanny Miss Andrew (Sarah Lynne Strange).
Cutting the material down to a 90-minute running time means that some aspects of the story go under-explained (what a chimney sweep is, for example).
Along with the performers’ singing and dancing, the big star turn here is William Layton’s colourful, plentiful costumes: lots of quick changes as Mary moves between her signature long coat and flat hat to tea party attire for Jolly Holiday. And the whole company switches to shiny primary colour outfits with clever stitchedin letters for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Spit-spot, off we go. Mary will always win hearts and you’ll doubtless leave humming. Even if this production feels a bit earthbound. Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter @KarenFricker2.
Vanessa Sears, front left, plays Mary with winning crispness, while Kyle Blair, front right, is perfectly cast as chimney sweep Bert.