Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but when dispensed by Young People’s Theatre (YPT), the dose is refreshing and unsaccharine.
The world’s most beguiling windborne nanny has descended at YPT for a long winter’s run in a brand-new production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical Mary Poppins, directed with verve and wit by Thom Allison and with arresting choreography by Kerry Gage. Almost as important as the titular character is beloved song-and-dance chimney-sweep Bert, who is here played by longtime Shaw and Stratford Festival favourite Kyle Blair.
Audiences familiar with Mary Poppins should know by now to expect the unexpected. Even when a work is familiar, a YPT interpretation finds ways to surprise, whether through canny staging, innovative casting or thematic connections to broader concerns. So even before seeing Mary Poppins at YPT, anticipate that it will be distinct from any predecessor. But how? Mr Blair offers one hint. “Bert has a line in the play: ‘Always remember, there are plenty of folk ready to help you should you need ’em’. Our wonderful director Thom Allison took this idea and ran with it” – most notably through a community of chimney sweeps who, like guardian angels, observe events from the shadows throughout the play, and help the proceedings along. They even help each other out: “we have some secret signals we give to each other to communicate…. it might be fun to see if you can spot this happening!” Mr Blair invites.
Mr Blair is making his YPT debut in Mary Poppins, but is by no means new to the character of Bert, whom he portrayed in the Neptune-Theatre production in 2014, and whom he has deeply considered. Bert is “a man of all trades but chiefly a chimney sweep: A great friend of Mary Poppins, he helps in the healing of the Banks family. He has an inexhaustible positive spirit, leads with his heart, and is comfortable living in the in-between places like dawn and dusk.” Mr Blair describes Bert as “evolved,” having already mastered the lessons that Mary teaches to Jane and Michael. Mr Blair loves the role because it feels like a “celebration of love and imagination”. He has tried to stay as playful as possible throughout rehearsals, and he is ideally cast. He is on stage (or above the stage looking down) for almost the entire show, and his warm presence is an effective counterpoint to Mary Poppins’ principled and decisive demeanour. He feels “particularly lucky” to be playing opposite Vanessa Sears (Mary Poppins), of whom he effuses that “she is very easy to fall in love with every day!” He is “excited for audiences who have seen the movie to experience the stage version”, and admits that he is personally partial to the writing in the stage version: “There is just as much fun and singing and dancing, but I think the stage version dives into the mystery a bit more.”
Though Mary Poppins was first published during the Depression and is set in Edwardian times, it resonates strongly today. Those who love the 1964 Academy-Award winning movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (and who make no apology for a soundtrack cd stashed in the car’s glove compartment) will find the stage version a distinctly different experience. It cleaves far closer to the original source books, but retains key elements from the movie. Author P.L. Travers’ relationship with Walt Disney became fraught over the film version of her books (the 2013 movie Saving Mr Banks chronicles the making of the 1964 film). Largely due to this contention and her dislike of the film, Travers long resisted granting the rights for a stage adaptation, which theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh finally secured in the 1980s. The stage musical premiered in London’s West End in 2004, eventually running for three years and winning two Olivier Awards. Since that time, it has been produced worldwide, including a six-and-a-half year run on Broadway, where it earned seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.
Clearly, there is something about Mary. Musically, YPT audiences can expect most of the Sherman Brothers songs from the movie, like “Step in Time”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, and especially, the quirkily anthemic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (which incidentally, Julie Andrews misspelled as a celebrity speller at a benefit performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee!). Beyond the peppy songs and whimsical fantasy, the story’s themes transcend time and place to manifest as a still-relevant enduring classic. Mr Blair attributes its lasting appeal to the “timeless” lessons that Mary Poppins teaches to the Banks children, and by extension, their family: “looking beyond what you see, the joy of language, charity, selflessness, the importance of play and creativity”. He remains delighted by the transformations at the heart of the story: “Mary helps people evolve into better versions of themselves: individuals who are awake, engaged, and full of love”.
Mr Blair’s hope is that “everyone we share this story with might feel that magic and be inspired to apply it to their own lives”. And audiences will certainly be entertained – and impressed – by the theatrical magic created by the versatile talents of the cast bringing the story to life. “I am excited for our audiences to see our wonderful cast,” Mr Blair enthuses, admitting that he has been “blown away with the talent in the room! This show requires great singing, comedy, tap dancing, acrobatics and more….”
As our conversation draws to a close, he ends with a shout-out: “working at YPT has been a wonderful experience!” and a warm welcome: “This musical feels like a labour of love, and we can’t wait to share it with you!”
As the weather gets colder, the days get darker, and the news stays troubling, the charm and fun of YPT’s bright, lively and topical interpretation of Mary Poppins goes down in the most delightful way. It’s a timely respite, and it’s also multi-layered. So like that soundtrack stashed in the glove compartment, you’ll be tempted to give it a second viewing.
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What: Mary Poppins, a musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film; Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; Book by Julian Fellowes; New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe; Co-Created by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by Thom Allison; Choreographed by Kerry Gage; Musical Direction/Orchestral Adaptation by Wayne Gwillim
Who: Audiences 5 years of age and older
When: On stage until January 6, 2019; Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON M5A 3Z4
Info and Tickets: Young People’s Theatre.ca
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / Sesayarts Magazine