There are a number of things to consider before taking children to the theater. But perhaps one of the most important besides the required expenditure in time and money is your child’s attention span. Only a parent knows if their child will be entranced for more than an hour sitting (that means behaving) in a seat. Two wonderful shows for family audiences have recently opened on Broadway. “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical” is one hour and 10 minutes without an intermission. “Mary Poppins” is two hours and 40 minutes including a 20-minute intermission. All things considered: I had a grand time at both, although with young people in tow at the “Grinch.” Adults will enjoy “Mary Poppins” without or without children.
Let’s settle something right now. The 1963 Walt Disney film version based on the stories of P.L. Travers was a delight with a very charming Julie Andrews in the title role. But it was also resoundingly criticized by devotees of the original for its almost icky sweetness, a quality that Ms. Andrews’ otherwise endearing performance did not disavow. Whether we are ready for this more accurately considered adaptation remains to be seen. From this perspective, the strictly business, opinionated, occasionally rude and always right nanny who could fly, as well as she could fuss and fume, is finally getting to show her true colors. And colors there are in Ashley Brown’s tart interpretation of this enduring fictional character and in this spectacularly and excitingly staged musical from its co-producers Disney and Cameron Mackintosh.
It won’t take you but a few minutes to realize that Brown is “Practically Perfect” as the take-charge nanny hired to teach the unruly Banks children a thing or two about obedience and respect, all the while serving as a healing presence to a dysfunctional family. Brown, who recently made her Broadway debut as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” may sing with the crystalline clarity that marks Ms. Andrews, and is also quite lovely to look at but it is her more assertive countenance that keeps the musical squarely on the author’s tract. Perhaps there is less sweetness and light to be seen in Mary Poppin’s personality, but she is now a much more interesting and, indeed, a more lovable character.
The collaborators — Richard Eyre (director), Julian Fellowes (book), and Matthew Bourne (co-director and choreographer) — are to be commended for going out on a limb by keeping faith with the essence of the classic stories. In particular, there is the Victorian values and mindset that is addressed without compromise. George Banks (Daniel Jenkins) is a stiff-necked workaholic who finds little time to show affection for his wife, Winifred (Rebecca Luker), a former actress whom he would like to see win acceptance by a snobbish society. He is also reluctant to demonstrate any interest in their two boisterous and unmanageable children, Jane (Katherine Leigh Doherty), and Michael (Matthew Gumley), that is except for staying out of the way. The children’s roles are triple cast.
Mary Poppins has that unique ability to arrive and take off holding onto an umbrella with carpetbag also in hand whenever duty calls or more accurately whenever the whim to do so suits her. This effect is handled quite winningly as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Between handling the family issues, bringing harmony into the multi-tiered home (the design artistry Bob Crowley, who also designed the eye-popping costumes), Poppins has that very special relationship with Bert (Gavin Lee), an ever-chipper chimney sweep, whose infectious presence and extraordinary dancing find him an almost equal partner to Poppins’ mission.
Special effects (and not just the flying) are in abundance. For starters, Lee’s dancing feet find their way to the top of the proscenium where he proceeds to tap dance (“Step in Time”) upside down. In addition to favorites “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “A Spoonful of Sugar,” there are some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that are integrated seamlessly into the original score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Luker has an opportunity to show off her vibrant soprano voice in a new song “Being Mrs. Banks,” in which Jenkins also lends his fine voice in a reprise.
Fantastical scenes abound. A deliberately scary scene finds the ill-mannered children menaced by a roomful of revolting toys suddenly come-to-life. The utter collapse into ruin of the Banks’ kitchen which is then magically rebuilt before our eyes on Mary’s command is a doozey. The rooftop dancing of London’s (most talented, of course) chimney sweeps is only topped by the sight of statues in the park that suddenly come to life in “Jolly Holiday,” all through the choreographic designs of Bourne and his co-choreographer, Stephen Mear.
Supporting performances are all terrific. Cass Morgan is effectively poignant, as the ragged old Bird Woman (“Feed the Birds”), and Ruth Gottschall shows up a few times most notably as Mr. Banks’ tyrannical childhood nanny, Miss Andrew (“Brimstone and Treacle”) and as Queen Victoria. Jane Carr and Mark Price are winning as Mrs. Brill, the housekeeper and the nonplussed valet, Robertson Ay. All I could think of as Mary Poppins flew off at the end of the show, her shoes only inches away from the top of my head, and as we all followed the flight of this beguiling nanny into the rafters: Wasn’t this just simply “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?” 4 stars.
“Mary Poppins,” New Amsterdam Theater, Broadway at West 42nd Street. $20 t0 $110. 212-307-4100.
#h#“Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical”#/h#
Here he is that mean, green, and hairy Grinch in action as he proceeds to plot and then steal Christmas from all those sweet little elfin creatures known as the Whos. Be prepared to be delighted by the exuberant singing and dancing of a company as they cavort in a candy-colored fantasy land where the characters speak in humorously rhymed couplets. The role of the Grinch is played by Patrick Page, with a devilishly amusing demeanor. Page stops the show at one point with “One of a Kind,” a bit of self-aggrandizing in the style of old time vaudeville. But neither is he above scaring the children in the audience, “I love it when the children cry.”
The original plot has been plumped up by Timothy Mason (who also wrote the lyrics to the songs). A narrative thread is provided by a personable John Cullum, who plays Old Max, the grownup version of Grinch’s canine mascot. As Young Max, Rusty Ross gives not only a funny and frisky portrayal but makes it quite clear how he feels about his master’s clearly unseemly/unseasonable behavior.
Director Matt August and choreographer John DeLuca keep the Whos — JP Who, Mama Who, Grandpa Seth Who, Granma Who, Boo Who, Annie Who, Danny Who, Betty Who, Cindy Lou Who, and all the other Whos — spinning, dancing and jumping joyously about in designer Robert Morgan’s puffy Munchkinesque costumes. John Lee Beatty’s brightly sketched mobile settings resemble pop out pages in children’s books. Puppets are also used imaginatively for a perspective into Whoville from the peak of Mr. Crumpit. Dare I mention that the Grinch is reformed and that Christmas is restored to everyone’s relief and delight? We already knew that the “Who Likes Christmas,” and now we can see why. HHH
“Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” through Sunday, January 7, Hilton Theater, 213 West 42nd Street. $25 to $99. 800-223-7565.
#h#"Two Trains Running"#/h#
Now that we’re done talking about the kiddies, the Signature Theatre Company is presenting a splendid production of “Two Trains Running,” the second play in its season devoted to the plays of the late August Wilson. With the publication and production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984), “Fences” (1987), “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1988). and “The Piano Lesson” (1990), Wilson established himself as the foremost dramatic chronicler of 20th century African-American life. When “Two Trains Running” opened in 1992, it was the fifth of a 10-play series that Wilson was destined to write before his untimely death in 2005. Each one of his plays has proven to be an extraordinary adjunct to a specific decade in American history as well as to dramatic literature.
Perhaps for the circumscribed story it has to tell “Two Trains Running” is a little long at almost three hours and fifteen minutes; but then again, Wilson was not a playwright who believed that less is more, especially when giving us more could mean so much more. On more than one occasion, the play also gets just a little too preachy and yet Wilson’s wonderfully written characters always seem to emerge to enthrall us and keep us glued to their words and actions. Even in relation to the vivid characters in his other plays, the habitues who gather at Memphis’s (Frankie Faison) neighborhood restaurant/coffee shop in the mostly black Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1969 seem to resonate with a palpable immediacy. What a wonderful experience it is when bursts of brilliant acting tip the scale in favor of an exceptionally rich and rewarding evening of theatrical fireworks.
Under Lou Bellamy’s direction, seven actors create a world that one is not going to easily forget. Gripped by the reality that his diner is ear-marked for demolition, dismayed by the lack of business and the deteriorating neighborhood, and worried that he may not get what it is worth, Memphis, nevertheless, has control of his bit of the world. Faison’s performance is fueled with a volcanic energy that drives the entire play.
Ed Wheeler is excellent as West, the all business, no nonsense, and very successful local funeral director currently beset with controlling the throngs of disruptive followers turning out to see the laid-out body of their cult prophet, Samuels. Ron Cephas Jones as Wolf tells us everything we need to know about himself (aptly named for his hip body language and his ogling eyes), the big man on the street, the local numbers runner who uses Memphis’ restaurant and telephone to conduct business and flirt with the diner’s adamantly disinterested waitress, Risa (January Lavoy). Leon Addison Brown is touching as the ranting Hambone, the harmless derelict driven mad by the white butcher across the street who promised him a ham for painting a fence but instead gave him a chicken.
Also hanging out for lack of a job at the restaurant is Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), a likeable, charismatic, and incurably romantic young local, recently released after serving five years in jail for robbing a bank. It’s hard not to root for him as he keeps his optimistic eye on the future as doggedly as he does on the restaurant’s pretty but ever dour Risa. That he wins our hearts and our support says a lot about Coleman’s performance.
As we have come to expect in countless bar-room and road-house plays, talk supercedes action, characters manipulate characters, and these people affect one another for good or bad. What isn’t superceded is Wilson’s way of planting within each character’s humorously earthy and immodestly direct speeches the artfully integrated symbolic lyricism that was to become his signature style.
Arthur French stands apart as Holloway, a retired house-painter and self-appointed philosopher. Even given the exceptionally fine ensemble performing, French plays Holloway with a wise, courageous eloquence that often moves us close to cheering. Holloway’s discourses on life become the anchor for this group of people seeking solidarity in the midst of their grievances and the social injustice of the era.
Director Bellamy, the founder and artistic director of Saint Paul’s Penumbra Theater, lets his observant direction go awry in only one instance. There is no reason why Bellamy should allow Risa to move about as if she were a somnambulist. Her unrelieved stone-like solemnity hovers over the play like a joke. It’s the only jarring note and an unfortunate digression from reality in an otherwise splendid production.
Derek McLane’s setting is the essence of reality: the stools in front of the counter with its container of muffins, and especially the chalk sign on the wall that says meat loaf with two sides can be purchased for $2.35. The play’s message is best defined by Wilson’s own words: “There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone.” 3 stars.
“Two Trains Running,” through Sunday, January 14, Signature Theater Company’s Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street. $55. 212-244-7529 or www.signaturetheatre.org.