Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sugar Highs and Lows - Mary Poppins and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Musical Reviews

Mary Poppins - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
A Musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film
Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, Book by Julian Fellowes, New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Co-Created by Cameron Mackintosh, Directed by Them Allison, Choreographed by Kerry Gage
Runs until Jan. 6th, 2019

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Princess of Wales Theatre - Toronto, ON - ** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Book by David Greig based on the book by Roald Dahl, Directed by Jack O'Brien, Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Runs in Toronto until Jan. 6th, 2019, continues on tour.

A tale of two "family" musicals (based on films based on books) playing in Toronto, and while not quite the best of musicals or the worst of musicals, the fact that both are currently running during this holiday season makes for an interesting comparison of these London import. With one in a local production at YPT with its more limited budget yet with shear talent, exuberant energy, and clever designs, enlivens the new, slightly darker take on Disney's Mary Poppins (and slightly more in tune with the original Travers book). On the other end, the big budget national tour of the Broadway version of Warner Bros.' Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks far more polished yet seems to miss the soul of Roald Dahl's book, and feels more like a corporate cash grab in a musical that just plods along and somehow continuously flattens any wonder and surprise in a story full of pure imagination.


Young People's Theatre's Mary Poppins has a beautifully imposing simple set of the Banks' house (designed by Brandon Kleiman) where the naughty Banks children drives out yet another nanny before the wind calls for Mary Poppins to appear. The new revised stage version by Julian Fellowes took Travers' darker tone and while it tries to deepen the issues with overworked Mr. Banks and his patriarchal authority, there is a bit of an uneven pacing with the tone that didn't work on Broadway and still does not, even in this shortened version. And while I can be nitpicky about the book, it's hard to complain about the famous Sherman Brother songs. While the new additions by Stiles and Drewe are not as familiarly ingrained in our heads as those from the film, they fit in quite seamlessly and have the same joyously cheeky tone.


Whatever qualms I still had with the revised stage version of the beloved Disney film, all is cured with a spoonful of sugar and a superb cast lead by superstar in the making Vanessa Sears (Brantwood, Kinky Boots Toronto) as Mary Poppins. Sears has just the right tone of stern authority, mischievous heart and then there is her soaring voice that flies higher than a magical umbrella could ever take a magical nanny. Sears is simply superb and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as Mary and her performance alone would have made this production soar. Sears however is joined by Kyle Blair (A Man of No Importance) as Bert and Jewelle Blackman (We Will Rock You, Caroline or Change) as Mrs. Bank and while both have done well with stints at Shaw or Stratford, hearing their beautiful voices just reminded me that we don't see enough of Blair and Blackman in Toronto musical theatre. It's also always nice to see Shane Carty as Mr. Banks, and Kyle Golemba, amongst a uniformly excellent ensemble (all dressed beautifully by William Layton's costumes).


The best thing about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was on our night, Rueby Wood as Charlie Bucket. Everything else seemed like a fascinating mix of all the wrong ingredients in a miscalculation of what a corporation's idea in forming a musical. The amazing thing is this touring version, based on the Broadway production, is a complete retooling of the London production. Despite a new book, a new director (Sam Mendes out, Jack O'Brien in, tho maybe not for the better), new sets, and apparently new songs (I saw the London production but could not tell you what changed since the songs were so unmemorable then, and still are), this new Broadway version is actually somewhat of an improvement from London. So that's the golden ticket lining?


By mostly re-structure the musical book by introducing Willy Wonka right from the opening number, in doing so, adds to more problems for the book in other ways. From there, moments that should be inherently wondrous and climatic seem to fizzle with little fanfare (like when Charlie finally finds the winning Golden ticket) thanks to O'Brien's lacklustre direction and a "stripped down" set that relies heavily on projection screens (though when there are sets, it was an improvement over the busy but ugly London sets). The tone is still confused and doesn't know what to do with Dahl's darkness amongst the candy coated storyline and Shaiman and Wittman's derivative songs do not help sugar coat a show designed for families and kids but then brutally maul four of its child characters (played by young adults I guess to soften the blow). Dahl's story always had the nasty tone built in but is played off cheekily, and while the production sometimes approaches Dahl's imaginative level, like the Oompa Loompas, or the Veruca Salt squirrel scene which verges on the level of nuttiness that is both surreal and inspired, even if it ends in some horrific horror movie level ending. Unfortunately as a whole, the musical even dampens the only good song "Pure Imagination" (and the only song not by Shaiman and Wittman, taken directly from the film) with an uninspiring, unimaginative retelling of a beloved childhood book.

Photos of Mary Poppins by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photos of Charli
e and the Chocolate Factory by Joan Marcus
Vance at

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