Mary Poppins Soars Again in 1910 England

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Mary Poppins

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Her umbrella firmly in hand, Mary Poppins flies over London’s rooftops once more!

In 2013, the new musical Mary Poppins had a roaring run on Broadway and it launched numerous national tours and individual productions. On Sunday, the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Milburn, N.J. opened its Mary Poppins.

I want to say the show was super, but it was rather supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

As everyone knows, the musical is the story of a tough, hard-nosed but lovable London nanny who steps into a troubled household to restore law and order. Her little magical touches, and big heart, help her do that. Accompanying her efforts are some of the great songs in stage history, such as “Superfragilisticexpialidocious,” Oscar Best Song winner “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and the delightful ”A Spoonful of Sugar.” The original songs are by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with additional songs and lyrics by George Stiles and Anrhony Drewe. The show’s co-creator is Cameron MacKintosh.

The musical is based on the hit 1964 Walt Disney movie that starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It was the most successful musical in Disney history, earning 13 Academy Award nominations and winning five Oscars (including one for Andrews as Best Actress).

There is a substantial amount of history in the musical, whose book is by Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellows, so splendidly staged at the Paper Mill. It is set in a 1910 London that is undergoing tremendous changes. The women’s’ movement to get the vote is well underway (women could vote in England several years before they could in the U.S.). The financial world is getting stung by a long string of entrepreneurs who may or may not be telling the truth about their companies and capital (sound familiar?). The industrial revolution seems to be swallowing up everybody.

And there are the chimney sweeps, a far cheerier lot than the real ones. The life of a chimney sweep was dreadful. The men, and ten-year-old boy and girl apprentices, sometimes died from falls, got stuck in chimneys, were covered in soot all day long, were paid poorly and unappreciated. They did not dance across the stage with one broom, as Bert does, but carried an arsenal of brushes, brooms and other things with them. It was a terrible life and the play does disservice to the sweeps of 1910 with its lighthearted presentation of them.

There is a lot of feminism in the musical. Mary is, no doubt, a feminist in both 1910 and 1964. She works as a nanny, a woman’s job, but in the way that she negotiates for her living and wages, and handles herself with both men and women, she is an in-charge feminist. Even in the 1964 film, her character was right up there with women leaders in the UK and the U.S. Example: Mary’s day off is Wednesday and she will NOT budge on that, come hell, high water or domestic crisis.

Mary Poppins is based on some of the British writer P.L. Traver’s books. When the play begins, the household of wealthy banker George Banks, a bit of a tyrant who always gets his way, is in a dither because his rotten young kids drive out every nanny their mom, the charismatic Winifred Banks, hires. Then George is suspended form work for dealing badly with a rogue entrepreneur, who, angry with George, took his business to a rival bank.

In steps Mary and in no time flat she gets the children to listen to her and obey their parents. But a little miracle happens. The kids grow, and quickly, and become generous and loving children. George, so greedy with his money, winds up giving away most of what he has to a homeless woman. The entire household becomes a loving family under Mary’s guidance. Mary finds love, too, although unrequited, in her relationship with Bert, the amusing chimney sweep. Is there a romance there? Maybe.

What is interesting about the story is that the saga and songs are just as fresh today as they were more than fifty years ago when the movie debuted. Nannies are always in the news, as are the struggling blue-collar workers, like the chimney sweeps. The financial sharks of 2017 are just as greedy and merciless as those of 1910.

Will order be restored to the Banks household in London? Can Mary, who flies about the stage with her famous umbrella from time to time, calm down everybody? Can George revert to the young boy he once was, and he was a great kid, a real free spirit who was beaten down by his parents, his autocratic nanny and the blustering bulldogs n banking?

The play is very, very clever. Its highlight is the Supercalifragilisticexpealidocous number, in which the singers and dancers hold up old stadium placard cheering cards to spell out the awesomely name song and then, in staccato fashion, regroup and change the letters to the names of other things. It is dazzling and brings a huge, loud roar from the audience. All of the number choreographed by Denis Jones, are superb.

Director Mark Hoebee has done a superb job with the script. He milks every bit of love for Mary out of the characters and gives the audience a nice slice of life in turn of the century England. Mary Poppins became an institution long ago, and yet Hoebee still manages to make her human.

He does that with a fine utilization of the actors in the show. Elena Shaddow is an impressive Mary, successfully serious and comical in a five second burst. She is tough, she is rigid, she is autocratic and yet, at the same time, mellow and winsome. She is just about perfect. Joining her is the skilled Mark Evans as chimney sweep Bert, a dancing fool if there ever was one. He is a surprisingly strong addition to the play (remember Dick Van Dyke in the movie?)

The rest of the cast includes Adam Monley and Jill pace as Mr. and Mrs. Banks and Abbie Grace Levi and John Michael PItera as the Banks’ kids.

Mary was seen in 1964 as a hero in the childcare workers movement. Nannies were, and are, badly paid and poorly treated. Statistics show that even today these workers earn just slightly above $20,000 a year and are constantly at the mercy of unscrupulous parents.

Everybody does not love Mary. Book author Travers detested the movie, argued about all of the characteristics of the film character Mary and told friends she could not stand any of the musical numbers. Oh well, Clark Gable hated Gone with the Wind.

Do you want to fly back to 1910 London? Do you want to have your life renewed, your dreams and aspirations restored? Do you want a little magic in your life? Do you want to learn how to spell supercalif… (oh, forget it!). See the Paper Mill’s Mary Poppins. It is, in a word, adorable.

PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Scenic Design: Timothy R. Mackabee, Costumes: Leon Dobkowski, Lighting: Charlie Morrison, Sound: Randy Hansen. Mary’s Flying: Foy. The play is directed by Mark S. Hoebee, with choreography by Denis Jones.

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