Most of us, over a certain age, know Mary Poppins, whether from the books by P.L. Travers, or the Disney movie created from those books, or the stage show that followed the movie.
Now a lavish Disney production is touring the world to make sure even more children fall under the spell of the mysterious English nanny, blown by the east wind to London's No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Currently playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where it can take advantage of state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, this "Mary Poppins" is nothing if not grandiose: Mary's friend Bert (the nimble Gavin Lee) dances up one side of the proscenium arch, across it -- upside down -- and down the other side. Mary (Caroline Sheen) not only flies through the sky; after her final scene, she floats out over the audience.
If you go "Mary Poppins" Where: The Opera House, The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Aug. 22 Info: $25 to $115; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org
Under the guidance of award-winning opera director Richard Eyre, the large scale of the musical never gets out of hand, and its most important characters are clearly drawn in this book by Julian Fellowes: the slightly starchy, magical Mary, the artist/chimney sweep Bert, the fussy Mr. Banks (Laird Mackintosh), the frustrated actress Mrs. Banks (Ellen Harvey), and the obstreperous Jane and Michael Banks (nicely played by Bailey Grey and Carter Thomas on opening night). The original Academy Award-winning music and lyrics by Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman are still there, but supplemented with musical numbers and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. In order to keep Jane and Michael in line, for instance, a song has been added ("Playing the Game") in which the children's toys come alive in larger-than-life-size versions of themselves.
In addition to memorable performances by Sheen and Lee, Q. Smith is outstanding as Mrs. Corry, the shopkeeper associated with the musical number "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Harvey is unforgettable as Miss Andrew, a cruel nanny who tries to take Mary Poppins' place. Mary VanArsdel offers a lovely rendition of "Feed the Birds."
Co-choreographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear have created a variety of impressive numbers, including a jazzy tap routine for the chimney sweeps and a tranquil, slow-motion moment that turns into a scene so busy it resembles a three-ring circus -- complete with statues coming to life and Queen Victoria on hand. But children like Barnum & Bailey's, right?
Bob Crowley's sets are luxurious and many, from woods to a park to the rooftops of London to the Bankses' home, an ingenious fold-out affair that has a main floor with a parlor in front, kitchen in back, and the children and Mary's room on the top floor. Appropriately, the production is full of props that perform magic at Mary's command: a cake that rises and ices itself, drawers that open and close by themselves and, of course, the carpet bag that contains an impossible number of huge items.
Crowley's costumes are a collision of intense colors. Howard Harrison's lighting design uses a palette of equally bright colors, particularly his skies over London, which range from crimson to azure.
A few small minds (young or old) may quibble over whether you can see the wires flying kites or holding Mary aloft, but ultimately "Mary Poppins" is not about its means but about its messages: Mr. Banks learns to appreciate his family instead of order and money; the children learn how to behave without a nanny; everyone learns that "anything can happen if you let it." This production preserves and emphasizes those messages, weighing in loud and clear on the inspirational benefits of "a spoonful of sugar" in making the medicine go down.