Things are definitely popping this theater season at Olney. The suburban theater has staged a bold Angels in America (in co-production with Round House Theatre), an emotionally devastating The Diary of Anne Frank – and now, a magical Mary Poppins.
It’s 1910 London, and the unruly Banks children have managed to drive away yet another nanny. Mr. Banks is distant and imperious, Mrs. Banks is trying to live up to her husband’s expectations. Into their dysfunctional lives, Mary Poppins drops in – literally, down the chimney. In a bit of a change from the Disney film version, this Mary Poppins is more exacting and no-nonsense. She sets out her own rules of employment to the bewildered Mrs. Banks. And she wastes no time getting the kids, Jane and Michael, in line – using magical means, if necessary.
But the children are quickly won over. A reluctant visit to the park turns into a fantastical romp with a statue that comes to life. A kitchen disaster gets cleaned up with a wave of Mary Poppins’ hand. A stop to observe a woman selling bird seed leads to a lesson in generosity. Most amazing of all is a trip to the carnivalesque shop of old Mrs. Corry (a character from the original P.L. Travers’s books who doesn’t appear in the film). She tells the Banks children that she remembers their father visiting her shop when he was little. The kids are amazed by this different perspective on their aloof father.
Then the winds change, and Mary Poppins is gone with the wind, leaving them nanny-less once more. Mrs. Banks decides to hire Mr. Banks’ old nanny, Miss Andrew, otherwise known as “the Holy Terror.” Instead of a spoonful of sugar, she doles out spoonfuls of “brimstone and treacle.” Miss Andrew’s ominous arrival coincides with Mr. Banks being suspended from his bank job – devastation for a man whose identity was so wrapped up in his occupation.
Miss Andrew barely has time to get comfortable before Mary Poppins flies back into town and sends Miss Andrew packing in an epic Battle of the Nannies. The children take Mary Poppins’ lessons to heart and help Mr. Banks find his young self again – the little boy who loved flying kites and who snuck away to visit Mrs. Corry’s shop for her gingerbread stars. His emotional transformation feels real, and doesn’t happen overnight, as Scrooge’s does.
Throughout, you’ll hear all the familiar beloved songs, from “Chim Chim Cher-ee” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” (My 7-year-old son is still humming “Spoonful of Sugar.”) The production moves briskly, though there is a bit of a lull in the beginning of Act 2, during which my son got a little restless. (Also, the evening show starts at 8 p.m., so the late hour may have contributed.)
Olney’s artistic director, Jason Loewith, says that this is the most technologically advanced production ever at Olney, and I believe it. The stage effects are very cool, from Mary Poppins flying off with her umbrella to a painting of flowers somehow becoming a real bouquet. But we found the less flashy effects the most moving. In the kite-flying scene near the end of the musical, the stage fills with colorful, softly glowing kites. My son breathed, “Ohh!” Turns out this kinetic, high-energy production hits closest to the heart with the beauty of simple pleasures.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Mary Poppins runs through Jan. 1, 2017. The show runs about 2.5 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Performances are Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $43 adults, $33 kids/seniors, $23 military.
- Olney Theatre provides helpful and thorough parental guidelines to their shows on their website. Mary Poppins, for example, is recommended for all ages, and would be rated G if it were a film.
- There is ample onsite parking.
- During intermission, the concession stand sells specialty drinks, including a non-alcoholic one called A Spoonful of Sugar: Sprite, grenadine, and maraschino cherry.
Photo credit: Stan Barouh