Winds in the east blow ‘Mary Poppins’ to Berkeley Playhouse

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“Mary Poppins” blew in for its Bay Area premiere last week to a fanfare of tooting trumpets and trilling Londoners in beflowered hats and bowlers.

The show, which is playing at the Berkeley Playhouse until Dec. 7, is the product of the mind of “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellows, along with composers Robert and Richard Sherman, who developed the classic story into a stage musical in 2004. Adopting aspects of both the Disney film and the original P.L. Travers stories, “Mary Poppins” is a production entirely of its own.

The musical incorporates elements that film fans would demand of any rendition of “Mary Poppins.” Favorites such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Let’s go Fly a Kite” are included, and the classic story of members of the Banks family — who, despite their apparent middle-class prosperity, are all unhappy with their lot in life — remains. The two Banks children, Michael (Chiara Abondolo-Mayo) and Jane (Dakota Dry), suffer from a string of funless nannies and a distant father (Tom Reardon) who is more interested in his work than his children. All family members can be found wallowing in their own troubles when a solution presents itself at the Banks’ doorstep in the form of the magically eccentric nanny Mary Poppins (Taylor Jones).

In a production as charming as the Disney-like theater that houses it, Berkeley Playhouse’s “Mary Poppins” bubbles and bursts, sparking moments of delight and feeling for audiences through the sheer enthusiasm of the cast’s performance and their interactions across a very smart set. Director Kimberly Dooley juggles the show’s many individual moving parts — both mechanical and human — with an ease that conveys the mischievous nature of the imagined world.

Performing and managing a set that seems to have a mind of its own has been one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding aspects of the show, according to UC Berkeley senior and “Mary Poppins” cast member Kenny Wang.

“It’s a very demanding show,” Wang said. “We have people flying. We have things breaking and fixing themselves magically, essentially. Overall, it is what we imagined the show to be.”

Behind the exuberance that the experience of the show brings viewers, however, there is an interesting and problematic aspect in the development of the script. In this musical version, Mrs. Banks is made to be a negative foil of the titular character. Poppins is depicted as the ultimate liberated woman who sets her own term of employment and hours, does not need luck to be successful, can befriend men without developing any romantic attachments and takes control of the story’s action. Mrs. Banks, on the other hand, is a housewife who is forced to give up her own career, assume the role given to her by her name (that is, her married name) and struggle to maintain a meaningful relationship with her husband and children without the authority to make substantial improvements to that family unit. She is, throughout most of the production, utterly powerless and disheartened.

The effect is that even more emphasis is placed on the “practically perfect” Poppins, which leads to an odd conglomeration of pros and cons for the story. On the one hand, it imbues importance into the role of teacher, which is not a frequent occurrence in media. On the other hand, it seems to do so unnecessarily at the expense of the mother figure — who also suffers from a bad rap in media portrayals.

This dissonance between the two adult female leads is slightly discouraging, though it is mostly overshadowed by the joy and umph of the rest of the production and its participants. This is clearly a show made with a great deal of passion on the part of the performers, which mingles with the free-spiritedness of the characters to form a concoction of wit and wonder.

“It’s very charming and it gives me butterflies every time I see it,” Wang said. “This show hasn’t lost its charmed — it’s always sweet; it’s always lovely to watch.”

“Mary Poppins” is playing at Berkeley Playhouse until Dec. 7. Thursday evening tickets are “pay what you can” from $5-$20.  

Anne Ferguson covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].