Review: 'Mary Poppins' is Full of Magic and Joy

Mary Poppins is one of the most iconic characters in children’s literature, having been lifted into fame by the sturdy umbrella of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel and, thirty years later, by the Disney movie. The latter starred Julie Andrews, a woman as beloved as ice cream; anyone stepping into her shoes had better do so convincingly.

Emily Diener, who plays the titular role in Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s production (onstage through December 18th), did so convincingly in the performance I attended. Like Andrews, she brought a benevolent authority to the role, a smiling propriety not so stiff that it won’t allow for a little magic.

Really, “magic” is the appropriate word; in telling the story, Civic has staged a wizardly production, one in which the wonder of a star-filled sky (elegantly brought to life by the crew) was nearly as impressive as flight itself, and in which a real dog (ably played by local canine Beatle) charmed just as much, if not more so, than a mechanical lark.

Moreover, the show looked right. Set changes were elegant and clean; costuming was correct but not distracting; lighting served to illuminate scenes that, at times, could have served as illustrations for Travers’ novel. (Were those really actors playing Mrs. Banks and her children? I could almost see the outlines from the pencil that must have drawn them).

Owen Smith brought faux-Cockney joie de vivre to his role as Bert, as well as the kind of athleticism required to pull off sky rolls. If he never quite shook off the shadow of Dick Van Dyke, there are worse performances to be reminded of. He exuded kindness and optimism.

The songs—well, you know the songs! “A Spoonful of Sugar” had Heidi, my six-year-old, quietly singing along. By the time “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” ended, my nine-year-old, Gemma, had joined in the fun, and both girls applauded wildly.

“Chim Chim Cher-ee” was my own favorite. There’s a yearning and even melancholy quality to the melody, something utterly at odds with the over-the-top happiness of the words. It’s haunting and a little mysterious, like a stranger seen in the distance as she rounds the corner of a building, never to be seen again. If that sounds like I’ve gone over-the-top myself, listen to it.

Most songs are like bubbles: they float briefly before popping, and are not missed. Nearly 60 years after the film’s release, these and other songs from Mary Poppins continue to float. The cast of the show, and the accompanying musicians led by Josh Keller, did the music proud.

The show makes room for humor, suspense, joy, and gratitude mixed with sadness. In the end, little Jane Banks (played by a terrific Everleigh Murphy) is left nothing but a locket—well, and memories. And memories count for a lot. As J.M. Barrie, another beloved children’s author, put it, “God gave us memory that we might have roses in December.”

Mary Poppins
Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
Nov. 18-Dec. 18