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THEATER REVIEW: “Mary Poppins” is a spoonful of sugar

Not many kids can boast a flying nanny, but I guess when you’ve been through six nannies in four months, a little magic is in order.

“Mary Poppins,” based on P.L. Travers’ series of children’s books, is back onstage through Aug. 21 at San Diego Civic Theatre under the auspices of Broadway San Diego.

The beloved show has a built-in following from both the books and the boffo 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke as the nanny and her buddy the artist/chimney sweep.

At heart, the story’s a didactic tale about parenting. Loan officer George Banks (Laird Mackintosh) believes in discipline, formality and the notion that kids should be seen and not heard, and certainly not hugged.

In the film, Mrs. Banks is also a pretty much absent parent, spending a great deal of time on suffragette causes. The stage mom (Blythe Wilson) appears to be a stay-at-home, not absent but puzzlingly hands-off. She seems to want to take care of the kids herself, but George insists on a nanny because “all the best people have them.”

The show has gone through several permutations and song changes, but the basics are still here: Mary (Steffanie Leigh) believes the best way to teach (or to get anyone to do anything) is with a “spoonful of sugar” rather than a stick. Hard to argue with that philosophy (though George does), and the kids (and Bert) thrive with Mary around.

There’s not much magic here. The best things about this production are Bob Crowley’s set and costume designs. The set opens like a pair of doors and revolves and there’s a whole platoon of scrims, drops and other set-changing devices to delight the eye. The costumes are fun and functional (though parents toting with small children may wonder about the skin-tight leotards worn by the dancing statues).

Leigh’s Mary is lovely, charming and possessed of a beautiful voice. This is the first starring role for Leigh, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon. She should have a long career in musical comedy.

Dromard’s Bert is a delight as well, sprite-like and lively, with a good voice and fine dancing skills.

Wilson and Mackintosh are fine as the Banks parents; Janet MacEwen quite moving as the Bird Woman (though I didn’t understand a word of her song).

Which brings up the major problem here: the sound system. Either the mikes weren’t working properly or everybody was mumbling (or maybe I’m too old and need a hearing aid), because I didn’t understand much of anything anybody sang.

Camille Mancuso and Tyler Merna, who play the Banks children, are also victims of the sound system. I’d prefer to think that than to say they seemed to be screaming the whole time.

One song change is “Playing The Game,” which replaces “Temper, Temper” (in which the children’s toys sentence the kids to a firing squad for ignoring them). The only problem with the new song (sorry, this is becoming a mantra) is that the words were indecipherable, at least to me.

Other new songs are “Precision And Order,” sung by the bank chairman (Michael McCarty) and clerks, and “Brimstone And Treacle,” sung by Miss Andrew, Mary’s temporary replacement (Q. Smith). They do not add much.

Let’s face it, film can do magic better than the stage. “Mary Poppins” is a better film than stage show, and this play will be best appreciated by those who know the film.

The details

“Mary Poppins” plays through Aug. 21 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave.

Tuesday through Thursday at 7 pm; Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm.

For tickets call (619) 570-1100 or Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.