P.L. Travers was famously reluctant to license her beloved character Mary Poppins to Walt Disney.
Artistry at Bloomington Center for the Arts
She knew that once the Mouse got a hold of Mary, she'd be his forever. She was, of course, correct, but in the bargain Mary also got an iconic Julie Andrews portrayal and some of the century's most indelible screen songs. Really, the worst thing to come out of the deal would be Saving Mr. Banks, the wince-worthy 2013 movie about how Walt wooed her.
Those unforgettable songs all but guaranteed the 2004 Mary Poppins musical wouldn't suck, but Disney (with Cameron Mackintosh and the 100% British creative team demanded by the still-smarting Travers) sweetened the pot with a particularly ambitious stage spectacular. See a touring production of Mary Poppins and you'll see Mary flying, Bert dancing up the proscenium, and a messy kitchen magically cleaning itself up.
Artistry's new production doesn't have the multi-million-dollar budget to pull all of those tricks off, but when it comes to stage magic, to borrow a phrase from Ella Fitzgerald, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. Director Joel Sass brings Mary to life with a warm-spirited, well-acted show that nicely captures the legendary nanny's essential weirdness.
That's thanks to a sterling starring performance by Becca Hart, one of the brightest rising stars on the Twin Cities theater scene. Her millennial Mary greets the world with a nicely understated charisma, playing up the aspect of Julian Fellowes' script that paints her as tantalizingly unknowable. She'll give you what you need, but in return she demands to never have to explain herself.
To say there are few standouts in the rest of the cast is, in this case, a compliment: the four members of the Banks family are all solid and appealing, with C. Ryan Shipley as an unassuming Bert, the sometime chimney sweep. Opening the second act with a "Brimstone and Treacle" bang, Brandon A. Jackson delivers a gratifyingly volcanic performance as Miss Andrew, the anti-Poppins.
(Casting a black man as a comically villainous character, in a show where the six sympathetic leading actors are white, makes for what Star Tribune critic Rohan Preston called "an object lesson in the tricky business of so-called colorblind casting." In a published letter to the newspaper, Jackson strongly defended his role in the production: "I am grateful that Artistry continues to push the envelope and challenge its audiences with nontraditional casting choices.")
Sass' functional and attractive set often slides out of the way to let the excellent ensemble kick up their heels in numbers like the colorful "Jolly Holiday," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," and a show-stopping "Step in Time," with exuberant choreography by Joe Chvala. Anita Ruth leads a tight live orchestra; George Stiles and Anthony Drewe nicely expanded the movie's songs to facilitate extended production numbers that are as much fun to hear as they are to watch.
When it's time for Mary to work her magic, creative staging provides plenty of surprises. Eschewing wires for a tall rolling ladder, Hart wins oohs and aahs as she soars aloft, her eyes on the stars. Wasn't there another Disney character who said something about not needing any strings?