Does she fly? No. Not literally, nor figuratively.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres finds the spectacle and magic of "Mary Poppins" in dance, color, song and a few garden-variety magic tricks. But that signature moment, when other productions have launched Mary up and over audiences in a jaw-dropping theatrical trick, is absent.
I am not convinced, though, that one grand moment can transform a chilly musical that somehow makes the title character an underwritten side player.
As scripted by Julian Fellowes (before he was known for Downton Abbey), the piece adheres more closely to P.L. Travers' original books about an astringent nanny than did Walt Disney's 1964 film. The intention, however admirable, results in an episodic, hair-shirt tale of a London banker who finds his way to reconnect emotionally with his wife. Alas, traditionalists, Walt probably was onto something. He knew Mary needed that spoonful of sugar.
Musical numbers become the highlight of Michael Brindisi's Chanhassen production. He and choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson open up the stage in "Step in Time," "Jolly Holiday" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" with a mix of dance styles, all of which highlight Mark King's Bert — the affable chimney sweep. The sweat on King's face at one point tells us all we need to know about his tireless work ethic.
Rich Hamson has again invented amazing costumes, displaying a palette that gets almost surreal with the living statues in the park. Sue Berger's lights use bolts of bright green and pink neon. "Playing the Game" has a pleasurably bizarre affect, with toys coming to life.
To say this production has a brisk efficiency would be to ignore the two hour and 45 minute playing time. To Brindisi's great credit, though, his staging is largely fluid despite the choppy collection of scenes.
Keith Rice and Janet Hayes Trow play the parents, George and Winifred Banks. For a stiff London banker, Rice's George comes off rather volatile. And how is it that this actor, so thickly Russian of voice as Tevye in Chan's recent "Fiddler on the Roof," takes a complete whiff on George's British accent? Just wondering.
Winifred, a suffragette in the film, becomes a doormat who sings about the joys of "Being Mrs. Banks," one of the new songs added by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Hayes Trow nonetheless sings beautifully, with heart. The unruly kids, played on opening night by Jay Soulen and Isabelle Erhart, are just fine.
The greatest emotional moment of this production arrives in Michelle Barber's lovely and touching "Feed the Birds." Susan Hofflander is in high dudgeon as Miss Andrew in "Brimstone and Treacle."
That brings us to Mary. Ann Michels sings the role flawlessly and dances with the light touch of a sprite. Only rarely, though, does Fellowes' script give this actor a chance to share her generosity and heart. When Michels came forward for her curtain call — as herself, not as Mary — we were reminded of how radiant and deep she can be.
Michels is "practically perfect" in observing this character, as written. Somehow, though, we wish Mary were more a catalyst or a supernatural figure at the center of this story — someone who would make an indelible mark.
We wish she could fly.