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'Mary Poppins' performs magic in Tampa

Caroline Sheen, as Mary Poppins, with Katie Balen, Bryce Baldwin, Gavin Lee and the supporting cast.

Straz Performing Arts Center

Caroline Sheen, as Mary Poppins, with Katie Balen, Bryce Baldwin, Gavin Lee and the supporting cast.

The only people who will have fun at Mary Poppins are children and grownups who used to be children.

The touring Broadway production now at the Straz Center in Tampa is based on both P.L. Travers' children's books and the 1964 Disney film, from which it draws much of its music.

This production has many strengths, chief among them Caroline Sheen as the magical nanny and Gavin Lee (who originated the role in London and on Broadway) as chimney sweep Bert. Sheen has the voice and comic flair for this demanding role, and she makes Mary look at once firmly proper and bursting with some delicious secret.

Tall and lanky with a wicked grin, Lee looks like a young Hugh Laurie and moves with a rubbery grace reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke in the film. The magical pair have a spark of chemistry — it's no coincidence that when a park is transformed into a glorious painting during Jolly Holiday, the statues that come to life and dance around them are nymphs and satyrs.

Not that anything naughty goes on; this is Victorian England, after all. But the warm flirtation between Mary and Bert serves as contrast to the chilly marriage of George Banks (Laird MacKintosh) and his wife, Winifred (Blythe Wilson), whose children, Jane and Michael (played on Friday by Kelsey Fowler and Bryce Baldwin), are Mary's fractious charges.

Mr. Banks is a workaholic striver who treats his anxious wife and kids more like staff than family. As a result, the children are brats who have routed a series of nannies when Marry arrives, via flying umbrella, to take them in hand. Of course, she can't fix the kids without fixing the parents, but she's up to the task, as she informs us in Practically Perfect.

Like any fairy tale worth telling, Mary Poppins has its dark moments. In Playing the Game, the children's mistreated toys come to scary life to turn the tables. But even then Mary is reassuringly in control.

Standouts in a uniformly fine cast include Rachel Izen and Dennis Moench, who bring a touch of Laurel and Hardy to their comic turns as servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay.

Ellen Harvey is formidable as Mr. Banks' childhood nanny Miss Andrew, a.k.a. the Holy Terror. With a devilish black bonnet and a giant spoon, she delivers Brimstone and Treacle with evil brio.

The sets are marvels, from the Banks house, which opens and revolves like a giant doll house, to Bert's starlit rooftop turf.

The big song-and-dance numbers are all terrific, especially the jolly A Spoonful of Sugar, the Stomp-like chimney sweepers' dance Step in Time and the knockout final medley, after Mary's spectacular departure.

The showstopper, though, is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. With a candy-colored, circuslike setting and costumes, plus exuberantly speedy dancing, it gives the phrase "spelling exercise" a whole new meaning.

At two hours and 40 minutes, the play is a long haul for little ones. But the children seated near me all seemed caught up in it right to the end. Me, too.

If You Go

Mary Poppins

Continues through June 6 at the Straz Center for Performing Arts, Tampa. For information and tickets: (813)229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

'Mary Poppins' performs magic in Tampa 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 7:05pm]

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