- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

LONDON - The world’s most famous nanny is back. A big-budget “Mary Poppins” musical was to open last night at the Prince Edwards Theatre. And the eccentric, umbrella-toting favorite of generations of readers and moviegoers has big expectations to fill.

The show — staged by Walt Disney Co. and mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh — is one of this year’s most eagerly anticipated London productions. The theater world hopes it will bring just the injection of excitement and cash that the West End needs after a string of box-office disappointments.

It’s been 70 years since P.L. Travers created Mary Poppins for his series of 1930s children’s books, and 40 years since Julie Andrews brought the no-nonsense nanny to life on the screen.

Theatergoers will judge soon whether the latest interpretation of the classic story still has the magic of the originals.

Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney’s theatrical division, is certain that Mary Poppins’ enduring qualities — “magic, zaniness, inappropriateness, a curious disrespect for authority” — will thrive onstage.

“One thing Mary Poppins says, in the book and in our show, is, ‘I never explain anything,’ ” Mr. Schumacher said. “That allows her extraordinary freedom. We don’t even know who the heck this woman is. Is she a witch? Is she a fairy? Is she a guardian angel? She explodes into the imagination.”

Disney, which owns the songs and story lines from the 1964 movie, and Mr. Mackintosh, who holds the stage rights to the Poppins books, agreed in 2001 to collaborate on a stage adaptation, after years of impasse. Mr. Mackintosh’s credits include megahits “Les Miserables” and the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!”

Also involved in the new “Mary Poppins” are director Richard Eyre, former head of Britain’s National Theatre, and choreographer Matthew Bourne, creator of a renowned all-male “Swan Lake” and the Olivier Award-winning “Play Without Words.” Laura Michelle Kelly, a much-praised Eliza Doolittle in a West End production of “My Fair Lady,” stars as Mary Poppins.

The show’s book is by Academy Award-winning scriptwriter Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park,” “Vanity Fair”), while composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have written six new songs to complement the film’s tunes by brothers Robert and Richard Sherman.

The team is walking a fine line, trying to appeal to fans of the books and movie while adapting the story to a new medium. New songs will join old favorites such as “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”

The creators say they’re confident the lives of the wealthy, Edwardian-era Banks family will still speak to audiences. The story’s emotional tone, they believe, is strikingly modern: “an unhappy family being healed,” Mr. Eyre says.

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