Slow Burn Theatre Co’s “Mary Poppins” is a Practically Perfect and Ambitious Musical

Cast of Slow Burn Theatre Co’s “Mary Poppins” by Larry Marano

Updated: 03.27.23- An earlier version incorrectly stated that Kristin Sutter was the production stage manager, however Sutter takes over the role in tomorrow night’s performance. This has been updated to reflect Production Stage Manager Brandy DeMil and Assistant Stage Manager André Russell’s role in the show as of March 26 when this review was written.

When it was released in 1964, “Mary Poppins” was an absolute force, being not only the top grossing film of the year but winning big at the Oscars for its stars Julie Andrews and songwriters The Sherman Brothers, the songwriting duo responsible for decades worth of Disney songs. Based on the novel by P.L. Travers, Walt Disney was drawn to the story after his daughters had been so enamored by the story they convinced their father to make the novel into a film. While Travers was not a fan of the dancing penguins and some of the other liberties with her story that was inspired by her own experience with losing her father at a young age, the stage adaptation of her novel “Mary Poppins” sees Travers teaming up with megamusical juggernaut Sir Cameron Mackintosh to bring the practically perfect story of the nanny to the stage. “Mary Poppins” runs now at the Broward Center until April 9, with limited tickets available here.

With Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s Director Patrick Fitzwater introducing the production in front of a red curtain, announcing that the Sunday matinee I attended was sold-out as were many other performances in the show’s limited run. In the past season with “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Head Over Heels” with more mature themes, the upcoming season for Slow Burn features a far more family-friendly repertoire. While Fitzwater took the moment to proudly proclaim that the shows with younger audiences allow theatre to continue to be a thriving artform, Slow Burn Theatre has to be commended for finding a perfect medium in its upcoming season. Shows like “The Little Mermaid” and “Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical” are mixed in with productions with more adult themes like “The Prom” and “Into the Woods,” allowing not only children to be immersed in the world of theater but providing illustrious productions for a vast age range of audiences. The matinee performance of “Mary Poppins” especially attracted both younger children to far more mature audiences that grew up with the original film. 

As the curtain tears away, we are introduced to Bert (Adam Biner), on a London rooftop whose refrain of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” off the bat establishes him as the narrator of the events of the show with a delightful, familiar tune. In Biner’s Slow Burn debut, he plays the charming jack of all trades with clever comedic sensibilities, some whirlwind dancing and thankfully none of the overexaggerated Dick Van Dyke cockney-adjacent accent. As the set changes from outside 17 Cherry Tree Lane to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Banks, we witness a home being frantically put into order by uptight maid Mrs. Brill (Ellie Pattison) and nervous butler Robertson Ay (Stephen Fala). With the set rented from Front Row Theatrical, Production Stage Manager Brandy DeMil and Assistant Stage Manager André Russell have to be praised for executing the myriad of shockingly fast set changes. 

The Banks family, with strict banker father George (Matthew W. Korinko) and overwhelmed high society mother Winifred (April Strelinger) are contending with their nanny Katie Nanna (Ashley Rubin) making a mad dash from the home as the children Michael and Jane have distressed her for the last time. The child actors are rotated, with the performance I attended featuring Nate Colton as Michael and Victoria Vasquez as Jane. As the frustrated parents begin to write an ad seeking a new caregiver for the children, Michael and Jane sing “The Perfect Nanny” with their want for a nanny that is kind, witty, sweet and fairly pretty. In a flash of lighting effects, Mary Poppins (Melissa Whitworth) appears behind the family, responding to their line of questioning with the tune “Practically Perfect.” Whitworth’s casting as Poppins is beyond perfection, with her previous foray into the Julie Andrews Canon playing Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Delivering each song with razor precise diction and a lilting soprano, Whitworth delivers Poppins with a level of poise that is joyous and delightful. 

As Poppins strolls with the children to the park, we get the first taste of the show utilizing its massive 32 performer cast as the “Jolly Holiday” number kicks off with dancing statues and park goers flittering about the stage. With a change that I’m sure would delight Travers if she were alive, there are no dancing penguins in the scene nor floating furniture. In changing the script of the show to align more with P.L. Travers characterizations, the mother Winifred Banks is no longer a suffragette, sadly meaning the brilliant line of “Though we adore men individually/We agree that as a group they’re rather stupid!” is cut in favor of a new song “Being Mrs. Banks.” Although the Sherman Brothers were both alive and contributed cut songs to the “Mary Poppins” stage musical, new songs and lyrics were added by the songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, two British composers noted for adapting children’s stories to the stage. While the song in particular has a utilitarian duty of introducing Winifred as a high society woman pining for more beyond being the wife of a banker, April Strelinger delivers the emotional stakes in the ballad as she delivers “Why can’t you see that I’m here and I am on your side.”

In re-visiting the story, George Banks is given a far more developed storyline beyond being a hardworking banker. Attributing his moral tightfistedness to being brought up by his nanny Miss Andrews, the patriarch finds himself caught in upholding “Precision and Order.” With the decades of nostalgia for the classic Sherman Brothers songs, “A Spoonful of Sugar” is not performed when Mary first meets the children, but is moved to a segment where Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay are preparing a cake for Mrs. Banks’ dinner party but leaves the kitchen in disaster. Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay are played by Pattison and Fala respectively with the dynamic of a slapstick cockney duo with humor that rings undeniably British. Another change that comes in this adaptation is that of the Bird Woman (Heather Jane Rolff) whose number is established far earlier in the show. Rolff also plays Miss Andrews, who returns to the Banks household as Mary Poppins leaves the home after Act 1. Miss Andrews is a character added from the original novels that gives Mr. Banks a far more grounded reasoning to his curmudgeon attitude. Rolff playing both Andrews and the Bird Woman are vastly different portrayals, with Miss Andrews having the bombastic and high camp “Brimstone and Treacle” approach to rearing children and “Feed the Birds” as a tender ballad about caring for the lesser creatures of humanity.

Where Slow Burn’s “Mary Poppins” absolutely excels is its set design and costuming arranged by Rick Peña, especially in the larger ensemble numbers. Back in the park, Mary introduces the children to the magical Mrs. Corry and her “chatterboxes,” another character from the original novel that turns the turbulent tongue twister “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into a raucous dance number with neon day-glo period attire and gravity defying wigs. With only two weeks to learn the entire show, the ensemble featuring Slow Burn regulars Jerel Brown, Kristi Rose Mills, Samuel Colina and Benjamin Shaevitz is given some insanely tall orders to learn the original West End/Broadway and Tony-nominated choreography. Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear’s kinetic dance movements are staged spectacularly by Ashley Rubin, with the Act 2 number “Step in Time” being a pure frenzy of frantic limbs prancing about the rooftops of London in massive groups.

In the 2013 film “Saving Mr. Banks,” the writer of “Mary Poppins” P.L. Travers is sobbing at the end of witnessing “Mary Poppins” on screen for the first time at its premiere. She cries, not because she has been emotionally moved by the film, but because she has realized what her stories have become, to the point where she even gave Walt Disney notes on opening night, telling him to cut the animated sequences. Famously, Walt replied to her “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” While “Mr. Banks” is inevitably Disney’s attempt at revising the real history of Travers’ selling off the cinematic rights to her story in a ploy for financial stability, in reality Travers would have the last laugh by retaining the theatrical rights to “Mary Poppins” up until her passing in 1996. Undeniably, book writer Julian Fellowes’ libretto allows Mr. Banks play a more pivotal role in the narrative and the show’s spectacle is translated seamlessly to the stage. With the litany of film to stage adaptations lacking a substance independent of the original source material, “Mary Poppins” has the absolute legs to not only stand on its own but take the umbrella to soar into the clouds. 

Slow Burn Theatre Co’s “Mary Poppins” is a practically perfect version of the iconic 1964 film. With sharp choreography, classic songs and brilliant performances, this production continues to raise the standard of what Director Patrick Fitzwater sets out to do with a phenomenal cast. Melissa Whitworth as the whimsical nanny is a pure delight and the moments where she flies across the stage will leave you utterly speechless. “Mary Poppins” runs now at the Broward Center until April 9, with limited tickets available here.

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