NEW YORK — A joyful east wind will be blowing on Broadway for years to come, bringing "Mary Poppins," the new musical about the beloved nanny with a nifty umbrella, to the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street.
Based on the 1964 Disney film, with new material from the books of P.L. Travers, "Mary Poppins" the musical has been reimagined as an innovative marriage of movement to character and music by codirector and choreographer Matthew Bourne. A celebrity dancemaker in his native Britain, Bourne is known for his startling revisions of classical ballets and opera. Bourne brings the same sensibility to "Mary Poppins;" his production isn't beholden to replicating scenes from the 1964 movie that starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. (If you go hoping to see animated penguins, you're better off seeing "Happy Feet" at the cinema.) The Broadway show, which opened in London in 2004 and continues to run, is as vibrant and fluid as a ballet.
"One of the things you notice when you read the ["Mary Poppins"] books is that P.L. Travers was a big dance lover," says Bourne, who talked about the show during a recent rehearsal break. "She wanted to be a dancer. People in her stories often end up dancing, and dancing is an expression of joy. I felt we had her seal of approval to put in as much dance as possible."
Bourne came late to the study of dance after an early interest in theater and film. He's not attracted to abstract movement, preferring to tell a story that expresses the states of the characters through choreography. While he sees the classics through the prism of a contemporary viewpoint, he remains true to their core and their signature musical scores. The "Matthew Bourne Swan Lake," now playing as a revival in Paris, features a corps de ballet of male swans and a prince with relatives behaving suspiciously like the current Royal Family. Bourne also created full versions of "Nutcracker!" and "The Car Man," a risqué take on Bizet's "Carmen."
His principles are reflected in the more child-friendly "Mary Poppins," which he choreographed with Stephen Mear and directed with Richard Eyre, former director of Britain's Royal National Theatre.
"Mary Poppins" begins with a stream of characters moving to "Chim Chim Cher-ee," as if the East wind were assembling the characters for Mary to meet, led by her old friend, Bert (played by Gavin Lee, the only London import in an all-American cast).
The adventure in the park, "Jolly Holiday," turns into a vaudeville-romp for Mary, Bert, and the Banks children, joined by silver body-painted statues that come to life as classical ballet dancers.
As for the absence of those dancing penguins, Bourne comments, "We use theatrical effects rather than cinema. We don't use animation on stage."
The choreographic high point of Act I is "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," set to a series of hilarious gestures, postures, and spins – as if the cast were trying to capture in mime the impossible word, letter by letter.
"Step in Time," performed on the rooftops of London, transforms into a foot-stomping tap dance, capped by a coup de théâtre by Bert that must be seen to be believed," says Bourne. "I think you walk the tightrope of pleasing people who loved the piece and introducing this material to new people. And [you need] to surprise the people who love it as well."
Ashley Brown, who plays Mary Poppins, displays a spirited sense of good sportsmanship by throwing herself into the dances. "The task was to turn a piece of cinema into a piece of theater that is genuinely a new musical, not just, 'Oh, it's the film on stage,' " Bourne says.
Coproducers Cameron Mackintosh ("Cats," "Les Misérables," and "The Phantom of the Opera") and Disney spent £9 million to turn "Mary Poppins" into a musical. Like Walt Disney, who spent 16 years persuading author Travers that Mary Poppins belonged on film (Travers ultimately disapproved of Disney's defanged version of her caustic nanny), Mr. Mackintosh took a quarter century to bring the story to stage.
Mackintosh eventually convinced Travers, who died in 1996, that he could create a thrilling adaptation by adding new songs (by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) and more scenes from the books to the unforgettable film score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.
The tone of the musical is less saccharine than the film, and not suitable for children under 6. It's not likely that young children will understand the marital problems between George Banks and his wife. And one wonders if child viewers would ever want to take their stuffed animals to bed again after the scary scene in the nursery in which the toys come to life to chastise Jane and Michael Banks for mistreating them.
Bourne's influence is mirrored in the ever-changing scenery designed by Bob Crowley and the choreographic flow of the characters' entrances and exits (Poppins arrives by air, clutching her parrot-handled umbrella).
Bourne's concern to protect the source material is shared by the rest of the artistic team. "You're talking to someone who's loved the film all his life," Bourne says. "I certainly didn't want to trample on the film, but I was also someone who loved the books."
He adds, "Back when I was doing the choreography for Cameron's production of 'Oliver!' in 1994, I remember him playing me one of the new songs. I said, 'I'd love to do the show. I'll be the tea-boy, but just get me involved.' Luckily, they didn't forget me."