‘Mary Poppins’ is a magical, upbeat, musical delight

I’ll never forget my very young daughter and even younger son butchering “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” over and over until I wanted to surgically remove their vocal cords.

I also wanted to burn every copy of the 1964 “Mary Poppins” film from the Disney studio that spawned the tune.

Mary Poppins (El Beh) hands Jane Banks (Ruth Keith) and her brother Michael (David Rukin) a bit of advice. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

But now, seeing “Mary Poppins, the Broadway Musical” at the San Francisco Playhouse more than half a century later, I’m finally able to relax and savor its bounciness — even if El Beh superbly portrays Poppins as a slightly edgy sorceress rather than the sugary character Julie Andrews played in the movie.

There are manifold delightful elements in this upbeat production (exquisitely directed by Susi Damilano, co-founder of the playhouse):

  • Poppins pulling a ceaseless series of items from her carpetbag.
  • An almost lifelike, warm ‘n’ fuzzy puppet pooch prancing around.
  • A doll that, along with a dancing chorus of chums that include Raggedy Anne and Andy, magically coming alive in life-sized humanoid form.
  • And a bunch of high-flying kites and low-hanging sparkling stars filling the stage.

Plus, of course, Poppins smoothly floating across the night sky (and chimney sweep/artist Bert pulling off similar flying jaunts but adding a couple of acrobatic twists).

Sure, it took me several minutes to adjust to the British accents and high-pitched voices of David Rukin, who alternates in the role of Michael Banks with Billy Hutton, and Ruth Keith, who switches off with Grace Hutton as Jane Banks.

But I rapidly began to appreciate their top-notch performances as kids with elevated entitlement complexes and obnoxiousness quotients who’ve driven at least half a dozen nannies nuts.

“We’re living in a madhouse,” correctly states one Banks household servant.

Until, that is, Poppins — who arrogantly informs us she’s “practically perfect in every way” — pops into their home and all heaven breaks loose.

Yet it takes her no time at all to dispense advice that includes using a dose of feelgood-ism to alleviate life’s difficulties (as illustrated by the cheery “A Spoonful of Sugar”).

Not incidentally, “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” the sing-song ditty introduced by Bert (Wiley Naman Strasser), is probably the third most familiar tune among the more than 30 musical numbers that adroitly advance plot and characters.

Music director Katie Coleman leads a lively, hidden six-piece band that unobtrusively backs the music and lyrics oozing from the Oscar-winning talent banks of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, brothers who also penned “It’s a Small World” as well as tunes for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Winnie the Pooh.”

Kimberly Richards’ choreography is worth mentioning, too, a pleasant throwback to traditional dance steps that don’t depend on awkward modern, robotic movements.

And I absolutely must give credit to Katrina Lauren McGraw as Miss Andrew, a nasty nanny, a “holy terror” with the best singing voice on the stage who can spit venom as well as the best villain I’ve seen anywhere.

Damilano, the director, remembers seeing the Disney film on TV at age five, and cites the title character’s helping make her believe, while nurturing the power of imagination, that “anything is possible.”

Stressing a different aspect of the two-and-a-half-hour show, Bill English, the company’s artistic director, notes in the program that P.L. Travers, author of the original Mary Poppins stories, “a life-long iconoclast, a devotee of mysticism, and openly bisexual,” preferred to focus on the evils on the class divide in England and the discordant results of a mother and father distancing themselves from their children.

He says this production is closer to Travers’ original spirit than the somewhat saccharine Disney approach.

That goal has been successfully met, I believe.

But in no way does it diminish my main takeaway that, as expected, the show is — pun intended — enchanting. 

“Mary Poppins, the Broadway Musical” runs at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (between Powell and Mason), through Jan 12. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays, 3 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets: $35 to $125. Information: http://sfplayhouse.orgor 415-677-9596.

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or  www.vitalitypress.com.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →