Starlight’s Mary Poppins: Magic and Puppetry

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(Note: Potential spoilers ahead in this theater review.)

We attended the Thursday evening showing of Disney’s “Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical” as put on by Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre. It was a show well worth seeing — so like, and yet so unlike the Disney movie of the same name.

You will recognize many familiar songs, and might even be tempted to sing along, but you can’t. The tempo, words, and arrangements are all slightly changed, so just as you think you know it, you don’t. Yet it is artfully done, a great weaving of the old and new, creating one new tapestry of song.

Bert plays an expanded role from the movie, as both beau to Mary and singing narrator of transitions. The plot owes as much to the original books by PL Travers as it does to the movie version by Disney. Several characters in the original books, but not in the movie, make a return visit.

During the first act of the movie I was enjoying the plot, the unexpected twists, the way that the storyline was taken up a notch from the movie with the subtle dramatic weavings of old and new, the creation of greater dramatic tensions.

My enjoyment of the drama was somewhat decreased in the second act by the more obvious way that Mary moved the plot — using magic to treat people almost like puppets when necessary. I overstate my case. but in the movies, and in the books, Mary Poppins always denies that she did anything, that anything happened (though Jane and Michael have some small sign that it really did happen). The Mary in this production makes her actions too obvious to deny at points.

That is probably as good as any segue to my comments about the actors themselves.  While I think that Mary in the plot was a little too heavy handed, the actress for Mary Poppins was just right. Analisa Leaming, who played Maria in the KC Starlight production of Sound of Music last summer, was an excellent pick for Mary Poppins. Practically Perfect, as the saying goes.

For that matter, Matthew LaBanca is equally excellent as Bert. I previously mentioned his narration role — which is excellent — but his hints of amore with Mary, his interactions with the children, his accent, the way his acting ties the plot together as much as Leaming’s , is excellent. You may call him the unsung (except he sings quiet well) hero of the show.

So, my rating, good for the plot, excellent for the casting.

I could go on about various other cast members (The children are superb) but think I will end my review now. Several plaudits to the writers for their adherence and homace to both the books and the movie. Several plaudits to the actors (and actresses), for excellent portrayals of their roles. I didn’t get a feeling of “breaking the fourth wall.” I saw the character, no the actor, for each of them.

All in all, Kansas City did its usual, excellent job of staging its own production of a Broadway musical. They should be proud. You should go see it. And the writers should think again about the heavy-handed way they had Mary resolve some of the plot elements in Act 2 (but plaudits for the excellent ways they weave elements of the books back into the plays!).

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