It’s appropriate that, through both its advertising and its song, The Grand Theatre has leaned heavily into the concept of “practically perfect” for this production of Mary Poppins, as it’s a fitting description of this show. While the show itself is not perfect, it retains and exudes enough of the wholesome, family-friendly enjoyment and wonder that makes it a worthwhile addition to the Christmas season and a worthwhile production on its own merits.
There’s a significant challenge reviewing classics of the ilk of Mary Poppins. One person’s timeless production is another person’s stuck in time. How you perceive it depends, largely, on how you approach it. If you loved Mary Poppins back in the day, you’ll revel in a faithful production that does justice to all the highlights you remember. If you are of a mindset (or generation) that finds this style of musical campy or hokey, then this production is not going to convince you otherwise.
So that sets the foundation of the rest of this review: how you approach it is beyond the theatre’s control. But the quality of the production itself stands on its own merit.
There’s an additional challenge with a production like Mary Poppins that is so heavily influenced by cultural touchstones — the iconic performances of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It’s unfair to compare The Grand’s actors to those stars, but the reality is that those images are indelibly seared into our collective consciousness. Mark Uhre successfully transcends that comparison and produces a delightful version of Bert that is at once both familiar and all his own; Deborah Hay is less successful as Mary, producing a passable Poppins.
It’s safe to say Alexis Gordon steals the show. As Winifred Banks, she is the emotional heart of the production, the foundation upon which all else moves. It is her re-embracing of her strength and her sense of self that allows the family to come together — and thereby frees Mary to move on to the next family. Her emotional range is on full display and its power and impact is only overshadowed by her voice.
And it’s hard to say enough about the two youth performers: Hayden Baertsoen as Michael and Abi Verhaeghe as Jane. It’s often a fine line between precocious and annoying, and both youth stay well away from the negative portrayal. Their constant presence on stage and delivery of both prose and verse anchor the production and they hold their own with all the more seasoned actors on the stage.
Though there is the story underlying throughout, this production of Poppins is really a series of moments, tethered together through a story blending fantasy and reality. And it is those moments that the crowd wants to see — and the production delivers. Songs like A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and Step in Time are all expertly choreographed and gleefully embraced by the crowd.
And these moments are ripe for the picking when it comes to scene-stealing moments — and Mary Poppins delivers. In a play that features more epiphanies per minute than any other, George Banks — played by Ben Carlson — stands out. And Phoebe Hu’s Miss Brill plays the comedic role to perfection, drawing attention and laughs in every moment she’s on stage. Finally, Jan Alexandra Smith devours the role of Miss Andrew and spits out equal parts malice and venom to great effect and audience delight.
For all the good on the stage, the production elements occasionally let the actors down — or, in the case of one song — overwhelm the actors. This is another Grand production that integrates digital projection to mixed degrees of success. At times, it works — when cleverly projected on walls to create new textures to denote different rooms. At other times, especially during a star-filled/fireworks scene, the graphics devolve into cartoonishness and serve to disengage the audience from the fantasy immersion they were previously in.
Mary Poppins is a solid production of a classic, family-friendly show filled with song and gentle humour. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll absolutely be enthralled by the show. If not, no amount of sugar is going to convince you otherwise. But an excellent cast — highlighted by some absolutely standout performances — along with expert choreography and a production that only occasionally trips over its own feet, make this a welcome viewing during the holiday season.