I realize it's really not cool to say so when Spring is Awakening, but my favorite new musical of the past season was the decidedly old-fashioned Mary Poppins. This sentiment was confirmed when I saw it again Wednesday evening: In concept and execution, it is flawless. But while this word may suggest a certain soullessness, the show is far from the mechanical concoction many associate with Disney-spawned products. (Granted, this reputation is often deserved: just look at the horrid Tarzan a few blocks away—or rather, don't.) Flesh and blood are what make this show, and actual human emotions ensure that there's something to sustain the bright surface.
Disney was very clever is calling upon the likes of Matthew Bourne and Richard Eyre to handle the choreography and the staging, respectively. Bourne thrives within such a seemingly rigid narrative structure, and Eyre, whose Notes on a Scandal was deliciously nasty, makes sure things never get saccharine. As for Ashley Brown, her Mary, chin decisively jutting forward, always has a naughty glint in her eyes; she's warm but also sternly efficient, and never seems to beg for the children's (or the audience's) affection. Brown's performance should really have gotten more notice. Well, she did get nominated for a Tony but even in a year without Christine Ebersole's Madwoman of the Hamptons, I don't think voters would ever give her a chance.
Once again, trust the Brits to make smart, elegant family entertainment that looks down neither on adults nor on children, with the much-missed Coram Boy another recent example. Alas, I'm not holding my breath to ever see the National's acclaimed production of His Dark Materials in the U.S.—the antireligion philosophy which is the very foundation of the plot might be too hard to swallow for American audiences. (I hear it's been toned down in the upcoming film version, directed by that well-known master of complex emotions and magus of dark souls, Chris "About a Boy" Weitz.)