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The Family Room by Michelle Martin

June 7, 2009

Practically perfect

First, let me say that the Disney production of “Mary Poppins” now playing at the Cadillac Theater in Chicago is not a duplicate of the film version staring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

Sure, many of the same songs are there (“Chim-Chimanee,” anyone?) and Ashlee Brown and Gavin Lee seem to be doubles of the film stars. But there are plenty of characters and incidents taken directly from P.L. Travers’ eight “Mary Poppins” books: dancing statues; Mr. Banks’ childhood nanny, aka the “Holy Terror;” Mrs. Corry and her gingerbread stars.

And the two Banks children, Jane and Michael? Well, they are just as neglected as they are in the movie, but in the play, they are out to make someone pay for it. These are children who have embraced their naughtiness. Perhaps that’s just as well, because this Mary Poppins has some spice to go with her sweetness. Sure, she sings about “A Spoonful of Sugar,” but there’s something a little frightening about her.

When she arrives in the Banks household, she immediately takes the measure of the children’s shortcomings, while proclaiming herself to be “practically perfect in every way.”

Yes, I know the same scene was in the movie, but somehow, it had more of an edge to it on the stage. Throughout the show, the “magic” sequences had less of the movie’s dreamlike quality, and more of a nightmarish edge. And maybe that’s all to the good.

Caroline thought one scene — in which the toys come to life and (mis)treat the children the way the children treated them — was a little creepy, and I think she’s right.

But where else can you safely confront unconscious fears? How else do you show the consequences of bad behavior, on the part of the parents as well as the children, and not just the external consequences but the internal ones too? Because make no mistake, acting in mean and hurtful ways has just as much effect on the one who does it as the one to whom it is done.

In this “Mary Poppins,” the magical nanny is not there to make everything better, but to show the family what is really going on … and, perhaps, how they can make it better. But it’s not always a comfortable process. At one point, Michael tells Mary Poppins he loves her, and she responds in kind. That scares Michael enough to tell her to be “cross” like she always is.

Of course, Mary Poppins wants only the best for the Bankses, and she quickly steps in to protect them from the evil Miss Andrew, who thinks the only way to whip them into shape is a constant dose of punishment.

“He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him takes care to chastise him,” (Prov 13:24) the Bible said. Mary Poppins seems to understand this, in a metaphorical sense, but she also knows not to go to far. Just far enough to get a little respect.

Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at [email protected].