Zach Theatre's Mary Poppins

Great singing and dancing make Dave Steakley's staging soar, but a spoonful of calm would help the spectacle go down

Never need a reason, never need a rhyme: The cast of Mary Poppins step in time (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

Seeing Mary Poppins is one of the more disjointed theatrical experiences of this year. One could be forgiven for going into the theatre expecting a stage version of the classic Disney movie that has now worked its way into the childhood memories of multiple generations. The musical takes its larger plot and most of its songs from the film, but it also pulls generously from the books by P.L. Travers about a magical nanny and the family she cares for.

It's hardly a criticism to say that a musical follows the book material more than the movie. Yet it is an odd choice on the part of creators George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (additional music and lyrics), Julian Fellowes (script), and Cameron Mackintosh (production) to reorder the books into a single narrative, when the film already did so with remarkable success. Why the rearranging of scenes and songs and characters, especially when the end result offers surface-level pleasures but not much that's memorable?

Where Zach Theatre's production excels is as a vehicle for some great singers and a few fabulous dances. The character Mary Poppins is described several times as "practically perfect in every way," which also describes the decision to cast Jill Blackwood in the part. Blackwood brings a welcome effervescence to the part. Her second-act duet with Michelle Alexander as rival nanny Miss Andrew nearly lifts the audience from the ground with the sheer power of their voices. Please, Austin: Cast these women together again, early and often. (Hint: rhymes with Wicked.)

It's also as much a relief as anything else that a version of "Step in Time," the chimney-sweep hoedown, is pulled from the film (choreography by Robin Lewis). There are other good songs and dances, but few scenes offer the same potential for sheer fun as a crowd of chimney sweeps dancing for the sheer joy of it across the rooftops of London, free from social constraints.

And yet that's exactly where the stage musical falters. The film Mary Poppins is as silly as they come, but it holds a quiet promise that if you leave behind the conventional rules of society, what waits for you is the kind of love and wisdom that goes beyond age, class, and etiquette. It isn't just chimney sweeps dancing. It's the dance of working-class men who have discovered fleeting moments of freedom in a job that the world below has scorned as too filthy, too poor, too common.

Moments in the musical that might have permitted quiet discoveries and dimension are often, though not always, rushed through. The transformation of the father, George Banks (Tyler Jones), from cold and stern to warm and loving holds less power than it might have. Film provides an intimacy that theatre cannot, but the stage offers other ways to deliver meaning and honesty. Much of what lacks here is due more to the book than to Dave Steakley's direction, but still it seems that brief moments of calm might have been found in the staging.

Mary Poppins provides a delightful evening of theatre. Children who can sit still for a whole musical (with intermission) will probably love the experience. The show may fail to meet its full potential, but there is still much fun to be had.

Mary Poppins

Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through Sept. 4
Running time: 2 hr., 50 min.

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Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Jill Blackwood, Michelle Alexander, Matthew Redden, Tyler Jones, Robin Lewis, Julian Fellowes, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Cameron Mackintosh

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