In case you haven’t noticed, it’s very common these days for familiar films and television shows to be recycled as plays and musicals. Most, of course, are pale imitations of the originals, but occasionally one comes along that is a unique theatrical experience.
And that’s the standard that “Mary Poppins,” which is currently being presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse, rises to, at least in its best moments.
Yes, you get most of the songs written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman for the beloved 1964 movie (exceptions include “I Love to Laugh” and “Sister Suffragette”). There are also some solid new ones written by George Stiles and Anthony Drew for the stage version of “Mary Poppins” that opened in London in 2004 and ran on Broadway from 2006 to 2013.
Crucially, though, even the familiar songs are staged in exciting new ways. Scenic designer Timothy R. Mackabee and costume designer Leon Dobkowski infuse the dream-like “Jolly Holiday” with an explosion of bright colors. And director Mark S. Hoebee and choreographer Denis Jones turn “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into a jaw-dropping production number, with cast members spelling out the word with cards, and using the cards to spell out other words. Seventeen of the play’s 34 cast members, holding two letters apiece, move around the stage in dauntingly intricate patterns, somehow managing to avoid bumping into each other.
You can get a sense of this number in snippets of the video below, but it really is something that has to be seen to be believed.
Appropriately enough, for a play in which the title character seems to have supernatural powers, magical illusions (designed by Jim Steinmeyer and Robert Ramirez) and flying entrances and exits (created by the company, Flying by Foy) are sprinkled throughout the scenes.
There are a lot of good roles in “Mary Poppins,” starting, of course, with the flinty, mysterious title character and the ever-genial, boisterously dancing jack-of-all-trades Bert — ably played here by Elena Shaddow and Mark Evans. At times, they seem like they’re playing Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke playing those roles, but that’s pretty much unavoidable when you’re dealing with two such iconic original performances.
Among the supporting cast, Liz McCartney is the standout in her two roles, sweetly crooning “Feed the Birds” in the park and then reappearing as the ferociously evil nanny, Miss Andrew.
Child actors rotate in the roles of Jane and Michael Banks, and have quite a lot of singing and dancing and acting to do. Madi Shaer and Maddox Padgett were excellent in the performance I saw.
Overall, it’s hard to imagine a better play with which to introduce children to the theater — while giving their parents a nostalgic treat, as well.
“Mary Poppins” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through June 25; visit papermill.org.