Substitute a spoonful of crystal meth for the famous one of sugar and you’ll begin to get the wonderfully warped slant that Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans bring to "Mary Poppers," their take on the famous P.L. Travers’ character.
She’s been done before, most famously by Julie Andrews in the celebrated musical mix of live action and animation that so distinguished the 1965 Disney film. Andrews may have won the Oscar, but if you’re like me, you found this perfect nanny perfectly tiresome: a bossy know-it-all. You always thought there was a Nanny Dearest hidden beneath that starched exterior. Matters got worse when the vehicle found its way to the musical stage in a sumptuous show (still running on Broadway) in which Bert danced around the proscenium and the dull, goody-two-shoes Mary exited high over the audience, (Good riddance, I sighed.)
Bert doesn’t dance around the proscenium at Machine (if he did, he’d likely hit his head), but Poppins, renamed Mary Poppers, does fly over the audience. Except she’s a miniature doll holding a paper umbrella: a goofy effect in perfect pitch with the ingenious theatricality that helped establish the Orphans as Boston’s premiere comedy fringe company. Those that have lamented that Landry has changed over the years should book tickets now: "Mary Poppers" is vintage Orphans, except even faster and more slickly produced.
What Landry does is subvert the famous story of a nanny that tames a pair of bratty monsters, Michael (Liza Lott) and Jane (Grace Carney), who terrorize their nannies in their Beacon Hill home. (The locale is moved from London to Boston, but Edwardian period time-frame remains the same.) There’s a reason why Mary Poppers (Olive Another in a brilliant star-turn) doesn’t have any references or allow a background check and it’s revealed when Mary turns the childrens’ room into a crystal meth lab. This comes with a musical number so cleverly written that you might think Landry channeled the talent of the late Alan Jay Lerner. Throughout the songs are reworked versions of Broadway show-stoppers - charm numbers that are given a twist by Landry’s wicked and skillfully rhymed lyrics. To this add Delta Mile’s dynamic choreography, which may push the limit of the company’s talents, but are executed with such good humor and style that they raise the entertainment quotient considerably.
Seeing this iconic character instruct the children into the process of making this illegal substance is comic genius. And in turning this proper, ever-so-English world on its head, Landry both debunks the synthetic quality of the movie and stage musical, and makes these characters oddly more real. Mary’s not one-note perfection, but a pushy nanny with anger management and relationship issues; Bert’s not a happy-go-lucky chimney sweep, but a hustler working nannies in the park; Mrs. Banks isn’t the fretting Mom, but a headline-grabbing feminist with little interest in her children. And Michael and Jane are homicidal pre-teens that would be right at home in a Charles Addams’ New Yorker drawing: they don’t just drive their previous nanny away, they kill her.
This dark edge doesn’t coarsen the comedy, rather heightens it, in much the same way that British playwright Caryl Churchill did in the first-half of "Cloud Nine," her commentary on Victorian and modern values. That first half played as a cross-dressing farce, much like "Mary Poppers." Isn’t this kind of broad parody integral to social commentary?
What makes "Mary Poppers" work so well is how Landry debunks the perfect Disney world at the center of the film and stage musicals, and does so with a happy mix of musical-comedy and giddy burlesque. An appearance by the famous Bird Lady leads to one of the most hilarious gags found on a Boston stage this year; another is the late-in-the-show appearance by Viola Davis (recreating her character from "The Help") that raises the roof of the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts.
Another plus is how Landry tailors the roles for his actors, giving each their moment to shine, be it with a comic routine or a song where they exhibit their considerable vocal fireworks. Who would have ever imagined the famous duet between Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland of "Happy Days are Here Again" and "Get Happy" could be recycled into such a show-stopper as it is here?
What isn’t a surprise is that Olive Another is so good in the role. Audiences have come to expect this kind of inspired zaniness from Another, but with Mary Poppers, he gets a signature role. Speaking in a high-pitched, sing-songy voice and looking like Julie Andrews on steroids, Another turns the iconic figure into a loony, if strangely endearing caricature. Bill Hough brings a hoofer’s charm to Bert; Penny Champayne is effectively daffy as the self-absorbed feminist mom; Landry downplays Mr. Banks - a smart approach that only makes his characterization funnier; and Liza Lott and Grace Carney are quite terrific as the Goth Michael and Jane. Carney gets a moment to shine with a break-out ballad in the first act, then is joined by Lott for one of the second half’s most heartfelt moments.
It might seem strange that in a show as delirious as this one (the furiously paced staging is by Jim P. Byrne) should have such an affecting moment, but being able to draw from so many sources and turn it into a piece so wildly original and fresh remains Landry’s gift as an artist. That it is in such ample display in this splendid entertainment will keep audiences in Boston and Provincetown laughing through the summer.
"Mary Poppers" runs through May 20, 2012 at Machine, 1254 Bolyston Street, Boston, MA. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. Sundays at 5:00 p.m. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit the Gold Dust Orphans Facebook page.