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Review: Mary Poppins

At the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through August 22

Star Rating: ***½

Pamela Travers, the Australian who created Mary Poppins, was famously one of the few people on earth who despised the Oscar-winning 1964 musical adaptation of her work. Too saccharine and Americanized for her tastes, she felt manipulated by the Disney machine, particularly when Walt himself snubbed her at the movie’s premiere. She got her revenge by steadfastly refusing to agree to a sequel.

In a seeming gesture of reconciliation toward Travers, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s musical adaptation of Mary Poppins —currently playing at the Kennedy Center—does away with much of the sweetness of the Julie Andrews version. The children (four actors interchange in the roles of Jane and Michael) are awful, snobby brats who insult their servants, abuse their toys, and even refuse to talk to sweetheart chimney sweep Bert because he’s “dirty.” Mary Poppins (Caroline Sheen) is decidedly vain and has more than a touch of diva to her. And there’s a downright terrifying, Steven King-esque scene in the nursery when one of Jane’s disgruntled toys comes to life and crawls, arm-first, out of the dollhouse.

And yet the touring production, which at two hours and 45 minutes demands a lot from its younger audience members, has the same ability to thrill as any animated blockbuster. Adult influences abound: a park fantasy scene with a neon-green dog, Technicolor costumes, and statues that come alive borrow generously from Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The set for Mr. Banks’ bank stretches diagonally into the heavens, like a giant Escher drawing. And as for Von Hussler, a shadowy figure who declares to Mr. Banks that he can make money from money itself, it seems hard to believe that the show premiered before the world had ever heard of Bernie Madoff.

But the Disney magic prevails, particularly in the second half when a visually stunning “Step in Time” rivals the digital artistry of the movie. Bert (played with cocky bravado by the role’s originator, Gavin Black Lee) even climbs up the proscenium and tap dances, upside down, along the ceiling. Plus, there are flashy dance numbers galore and more than enough tricks to satisfy Disney nostalgists—a recent audience audibly cooed in wonder when Mary Poppins pulled a six-foot lamp out of her carpet bag. And they were mostly adults.

At the Kennedy Center until August 22. For tickets ($35 to $135) click here.

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