'Mary Poppins' at Tampa's Straz Center: Expect a charming set, strict nanny

in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins, the set is a massive marvel of stage engineering. At one point, the elegant Edwardian house glides back and the children's nursery upstairs descends like an aircraft carrier coming into port.

But now the musical adapted from the 1964 Walt Disney movie and P.L. Travers' series of books about a "practically perfect'' English nanny is on the road and opens this week in Tampa. Adjustments had to be made to the set so it could fit into a variety of theaters and be packed and moved every few weeks.

"For the tour, I went back to one of the original ideas I had,'' said Bob Crowley, the scenic and costume designer for Mary Poppins. "I knew I had to simplify everything for it to get onto trucks, so it became much more light on its feet as a result, and I think I actually prefer it.''

That's saying something, because Crowley won the 2007 Tony Award for the show's scenic design, which wowed audiences on Broadway and in London's West End. That set is an eye-popping rendition of the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane where Mary arrives to stay and changes the life of the Banks family.

"I came back to the concept of a child's dollhouse onstage, and it opens to reveal the interior,'' Crowley said in an interview last week from his studio in London. "I think it makes the story feel more like a fantasy. It's less real.''

Caroline Sheen, the Welsh actor playing Mary, thinks the tour set "makes the show more intimate, and the story comes across better,'' she said from a tour stop in Atlanta. "It's charming for them to be in this quaint house.''

In some ways, Crowley's design for the tour is more true to Travers' original conception. On the first page of Mary Poppins, she describes the Banks residence as "the smallest house in the Lane. And besides that, it is the only one that is rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint.''

Most people know the Disney film rather than the books, and for good reason. Julie Andrews gives one of her greatest performances onscreen, and Dick Van Dyke is also superb as Bert, the Cockney jack-of-all-trades whose relationship with Mary is one of the abiding mysteries of the stories. However, the musical goes to some length to restore the Travers version of things from the eight books she began publishing in the 1930s.

"I'd forgotten how strict Mary was,'' said Sheen, who read the books as a child and reread them to prepare to play the magical nanny. "In the books, she's ever so strict. I try and soften that slightly, but the whole reason for the musical is to combine the books and the film, so there has to be a harsher element to her. I'm surprised that children enjoyed them as much as they did back in the day, because they're not necessarily fun.''

Crowley, who still remembers vividly the first time he saw the movie ("It had a huge effect on me''), thinks that children actually love Mary's strictness.

"She's like a sort of angel,'' he said. "Everybody would like to have somebody like Mary Poppins knock on your door and solve all your problems. She takes those children — they're neglected by a father who's far too interested in working and a mother who's distracted by her insecurities — and rearranges everything. She puts wrongs to right.''

Crowley gave a lot of thought to the character of Mary in designing her costumes. "I wanted to retain that iconic silhouette that was created for Julie Andrews, but within that, she's got various looks: black, blue, red for the rooftop scene, then a purply blue for Anything Can Happen. She's kind of dressed like the sky at night when she goes away again,'' he said.

The image of Andrews looms over any actor who plays Mary. "If you do Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music or Camelot, you have to live up to Julie Andrews,'' Sheen said. "She seems like a magical person to me. I think half of her talent is that she just seems to be such a nice lady. If you can be that famous and that talented and that nice as well, it's amazing.''

Most of the actors cast as Mary in London, New York and on tour have been British, with the conspicuous exception of Ashley Brown, a Floridian who was in the original Broadway cast and on the U.S. tour until February.

"They do like having an authentic English accent for Mary,'' said Sheen, adding that she lost her Welsh accent once she left home for drama school in London. "My mum was over here in America for a week, and she said there were a couple of my lines that sounded Welsh, but nobody else would have known. Most people say I sound pretty posh.''

Still, proper English pronunciation or not, Mary can be a daunting role. "It's a tricky sing — very high and also quite low — so you have to have a big range,'' Sheen said. "And you have to have the acting chops. It's a very intricate book. The dialogue is play-worthy; it's not just there to link the songs. It's got real meat to it.''

And, of course, Mary flies during the show — three times, including the big number at the end when Sheen is strapped into a harness to soar up and away and out of the theater.

"It's kind of like being on a ski lift,'' she said. "It's the easiest part of the show for me. I just have to hang there and try and look elegant and magical. It's the machinery doing all the work.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Call at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

>> If you go

'Mary Poppins'

The musical opens Friday and runs through June 6 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $35-$133.50. Preview performances today at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $18.50-$133.50. The matinee May 30 will be audio-described for the visually impaired. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

'Mary Poppins' at Tampa's Straz Center: Expect a charming set, strict nanny 05/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 7:30pm]

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