Theater: Mary Poppins Takes Flight


There comes a time in every parent’s life when he or she wishes for a magical nanny. Maybe it’s during a 3 a.m. feeding, or when it’s time to figure out what’s for dinner after a long, trying day, or while worrying about not having enough time, energy, or money for the family. A magical nanny is exactly what Mr. and Mrs. Banks receive at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, England. Her name is Mary Poppins, and once she arrives, nothing is the same. She not only restores order to the household, she helps the Banks family realize what’s important in life.

Mary Poppins is a timeless story,” says Ashley Brown, the pitch-perfect 27-year-old starring as the title character in the national tour of Mary Poppins, making its Minnesota debut at Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Orpheum Theatre September 3-20. “Her message is that family is important,” Brown explains. “If you have a deep family bond, you can get through anything in life.”

Brown’s resume includes starring in the national tour of Disney’s On The Record before making her Broadway debut as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. She originated the role of Mary Poppins on Broadway in 2006, played Mary for two years on Broadway, and is now on the national tour.

Produced by Disney and musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh, Poppins on tour kicks off the Trust’s 2009/10 Broadway season, offering a new take on the old classic. Unlike the popular 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews, the national tour focuses more on the dynamics of the family­—more like the 1930s children’s book series by P.L. Travers—allowing the audience to get to know Mr. and Mrs. Banks and understand why Mary is there to help them.
“I think people are pleasantly surprised that it’s not just a kids’ show,” Brown explains. “Adults wind up relating to the family’s situation, getting to know the characters and really enjoying the production.”

And while the storyline has more depth than one might anticipate after seeing the movie version of Mary Poppins, there is still plenty of fun for all ages: Mary performs magic tricks (Ashley was trained by a magician who—she says—was a saint for not “running away screaming” while she was learning the stunts); Bert, the jack-of-all-trades chimneysweep played by Gavin Lee, who also starred in the same role on Broadway, tap dances upside down, and Mary mysteriously floats up, up and away (to name just a few of the special effects).

The musical has also been outfitted with new songs that fit perfectly with the Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s original Oscar winning showstoppers “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Add to that, choreography by Tony and five-time Olivier Award winner Matthew Bourne that is phenomenal, costumes and set designs by the Tony winning Bob Crowley that are rich and sumptuous, and all the elements brought to life by an amazingly talented cast.

Ashley Brown, who has been described as “anything but the stereotypical Broadway type,” says she tries not to portray Mary Poppins as a “fantastical” character.

“I try to make her relatable,” Brown says. “I treat it as: ‘This is what everyday life is like for Mary. This, to her, is normal.’” Mary Poppins is just as emotionally-engaging as it is entertaining and uplifting.

“It’s a spectacular and poignant show,” says Tom Hoch, president/CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust. “There are amazing scenes and some technological wizardry that will leave people slack-jawed—relishing that feeling of wonder and magic that you get from the best theatre experiences.”