Despite all the buzz that’s been generated by last week’s NBC broadcast of “Peter Pan” and last year’s “The Sound of Music,” the airing of live Broadway musicals is nothing new to TV.
In fact, “Peter Pan” was first performed live on NBC in 1955 – a time when the upstart TV industry turned to the New York stage for much of its programming.
Even then, stage-to-screen transitions were nothing new, for hit musicals like “Show Boat” and “Guys and Dolls” were regularly turned into films. They still are, with “Jersey Boys,” “Into the Woods” and “Annie” currently on the marquee at local movie theaters.
But there’s a new trend afoot.
In an effort to reverse diminishing box office sales, Broadway has been turning popular films into stage productions. Live-action versions of Disney’s animated musicals “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” are now playing on the Great White Way, and “Newsies” just closed after a successful two-year run.
In Cleveland, “Mary Poppins” just opened at the Beck Center for the Arts.
Here’s the thing: Screen-to-stage musicals are a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, there is the exhilaration of seeing familiar characters and their two-dimensional worlds fully fleshed and in person. On the other hand, no amount of stagecraft can match the vivid and indelible visual images created by cinematic storytelling.
The 1964 film ”Mary Poppins” is based on the books by P.L. Travers. It tells the story of the Banks family and how their lives change when a magical nanny arrives at their home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The score boasts of Academy Award-winning music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and the story is bolstered by Disney animation and an Academy Award-winning cast.
The stage production, which opened on Broadway in 2006 and came to PlayhouseSquare on tour in 2009, replicates the film. It also incorporates elements from the books that had been side-stepped, such as Mr. and Mrs. Banks’ back stories, and adds some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. A few popular scenes, like the tea party on the ceiling, have been removed while others have simply been rearranged.
Most significantly, Walt Disney Theatrical spent $18 million on elaborate special effects developed by Las Vegas illusionists and Disney theme park specialists. Included is a two-story home that opens like a children’s dollhouse, a dreary city park mutating into a color-saturated fantasy land, Bert the chimney sweep dancing around the proscenium arch, and Mary flying over the heads of the audience.
And therein lies the biggest problem with “Mary Poppins” at the Beck Center: It pales in comparison to the Broadway show.
This Mary (a silver throated but fierce and off-putting Rebecca Pitcher) does not fly and this Bert (an absolutely charming and effervescent Matthew Ryan Thompson) does not climb walls. In “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and other numbers, the stage is not saturated with spectacular color or awe-inspiring activity. And, with a budget built for just a spoonful of spectacle, the magic in this production is thoroughly underwhelming.
It is, of course, unfair to compare this locally produced show to either the film or the Broadway production. But audiences most assuredly will.
If they look beyond these disparities, however, they will see that director Scott Plate has put together a “Mary Poppins” that is practically perfect in other ways.
Each London location is cleverly established by beautifully detailed stand-alone set pieces designed by Jeff Herrmann. They are nicely complemented by Aimee Kluiber’s costuming and a cluster of white umbrellas suspended toward the back of the stage in lieu of standard scenery. The umbrellas are dramatically lit by Dennis Dugan and provide a surface for Mike Tutaj’s creative video projections that add action as well as ambiance to each scene.
While all the featured actors are good, standout performances are turned in by the multi-talented Thompson as Bert, Katherine DeBoer as the very accessible Mrs. Banks, and the delightful and stage-savvy Anna Barrett as her young daughter Jane. They, more than most, bring much needed energy and professionalism to this production and are a pleasure to watch.
They are surrounded by an ensemble of talented singers and dancers that showcase Martin Cespedes’ exhilarating, cinematic choreography. His staging of the roof-top musical number “Step in Time,” which is beautifully supported by Larry Goodpaster’s sizable orchestra, is one of the evening’s highlights. Peggy Gibbons’ singing of “Feed the Birds” is another.
In last week’s broadcast of “Peter Pan,” children in the audience were asked to clap if they believed in fairies. If only clapping could instill more magic in this production of “Mary Poppins” as well.
WHAT: “Mary Poppins”
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood
WHEN: Through Jan. 4
TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $29, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org