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Center Stage

Fixing a family with supernatural sugar


12/3/2014

“Mary Poppins.” Des Moines Playhouse, Dec. 5-28.  Fri., Dec. 5, 7 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., Dec. 10-26, 7 p.m. Sat-Sun, Dec. 6-28, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

“Mary Poppins.” Des Moines Playhouse, Dec. 5-28. Fri., Dec. 5, 7 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., Dec. 10-26, 7 p.m. Sat-Sun, Dec. 6-28, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

At one of the last rehearsals of “Mary Poppins,” I saw a young woman fly. What’s more, she was singing. Onstage, technicians scrambled around, at work on location and timing. But Dani Boal, up on the wires that will carry her over the rooftops of London, delivered a lovely melody.

“I absolutely love flying,” Boal told me later. “I wish every show had flying.”

Poppins, borne aloft by her magic umbrella, remains a happy memory for everyone who saw the Disney version. Fifty years ago, the movie was feel-good entertainment that featured Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins. But when the musical came along in 2004, it featured additional songs, a book by Richard and Russell Sherman and greater overall human drama.

“Our production is penguin-free,” says Director John Viars.

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The musical is more in the spirit of the original “Poppins” books by P.L. Travers. In them, Viars explains, “Poppins is this supernatural being who comes to fix a broken family.”

He is referring to the Banks family for whom “things are all raveling undone.” So sings the chimneysweep, Bert, and at once we see that the kids just won’t behave. As ever, though, it’s not entirely the children’s fault. Rather, they’re saddled with a distant, workaholic father. The man requires a change of heart.

“This role isn’t just musical fluff; it’s dynamic and dramatic,” said Michael Davenport, who plays the father.

According to Viars, this transformation makes “Poppins” a Christmas story. He compares the turnaround to Jimmy Stewart’s in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There’s movie magic in the Playhouse set by Alan S. Reynolds. As it folds and unfolds, a city park can collapse into the kids’ bedroom. So, too, the show offers plenty of light moments. Viars claims the best metaphor for this production’s mix of serious and playful comes in one of its hit numbers, “A Spoonful of Sugar (Makes the Medicine Go Down).”

Other favorites remain as well. Among these is the copyeditor’s nightmare, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” Music will be provided by local professionals, augmented by the same software used on Broadway. The larger production numbers feel like recess time, with children as well as adults, and Bert is played by Eric Deutz, so light on his feet in “South Pacific.” What’s more, nearly all the dancing is original.

Viars gives credit to Alison Schaefer, the choreographer.

“Ninety-five percent of what you’ll see is her doing,” Viars said.

In other words, “Poppins” combines the familiar with the challenging. Boal asks that theatergoers set aside “preconceptions from the movie.” Like her, they should come looking forward to flying.

Overheard in the Lobby: This weekend, StageWest and Des Moines Metro Opera collaborate on “The Baltimore Waltz” and “Three Decembers” at the Temple. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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