Chimney Sweep

Swept Away: The Muny’s Mary Poppins is nice, however it’s the chimney sweep who’s tremendous…ali-docious | St. Louis

If “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” were a real word, it would be the longest word in the world, longer even than “antidisestablishmentarianism” by a full six letters, and a lot more fun, because as every child knows, “anti” is a negative prefix that means against, and “super” is a positive adjective that means marvelous — an encomium that aptly describes the magical world of England’s most celebrated nanny. This elongated, run-on word was concocted by the songwriting Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, for the merry 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins, and it is a highlight of the popular musical stage adaptation that is currently on view at the Muny.

When, late in Act One, the unruffled Ms. Poppins and her lithe pal, Bert sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the Muny stage must be the happiest place on earth. It’s a welcome feat considering that happiness is in short supply in Mary Poppins.

The plot, which draws on the mysterious character introduced by Australian author P.L. Travers in 1934, concerns a high-flying nanny who heals a dysfunctional earthbound family in Edwardian London. In the stuffy Banks home, there’s little communication among parents and children or even between husband and wife. Enter Mary Poppins. Between her somewhat abrupt arrivals and departures, Mary instructs her charges, Michael and Jane (Aidan Gemme and Elizabeth Teeter, who has acquired considerable stage poise since her last Muny appearance two summers ago), in important life lessons. “Don’t interrupt when someone’s barking” is the sort of supremely sane truism from which we all can benefit.

All summer long the starlit sky of the open-air Muny has enriched the theater’s offerings of Spamalot, Shrek, South Pacific and Les Miz. But with its reliance on special effects, Mary Poppins is one show that might work better indoors. Nevertheless, director Gary Griffin and choreographer Alex Sanchez have mounted a buoyant evening that moves from sprightly moment to moment. In the title role, Jenny Powers is a crowd pleaser. If a porcelain dinner plate could smile — and in Mary Poppins’ fantastic world, anything is possible — that porcelain would smile the smile of Jenny Powers.

As the repressed Banks family patriarch, Stephen Buntrock portrays a stuffed shirt without being stuffy. Last summer when Buntrock played a similar role in his Muny debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie, he innately understood how to project voice and personality without calling undue attention to himself. Here, again, he is as if to the Muny manner born. In the opening scene when Mr. Banks learns that yet another (pre-Poppins) nanny has quit because of his difficult kids, Buntrock’s bellicose “Nonsense!” can be heard as far away as Art Hill. This production officially kicks in with the delivery of that word.

But the most triumphant performance of all — and the one that makes this Mary Poppins memorable — is Rob McClure’s exuberant Bert. “When you walk with Mary Poppins,” this chimney sweep (cum street entertainer cum painter) advises Michael and Jane, “you go places you never dreamed of.” But McClure doesn’t walk anywhere if he can stroll, skip or glide. The dexterous actor is not notably tall, but he has figured out that an extended arm will add another couple feet. As he leaps about the stage, Bert is all extensions — the theater equivalent of a whirling dervish. Regardless of whether he is balancing on one foot atop a rooftop chimney or entering the Banks home through the fireplace, McClure is clearly having a blast. And when at the end of “Supercali…” (you know the rest) he slides across the Muny proscenium as if he’s stealing second base, McClure is not merely skidding across the stage; he’s skidding into our hearts. The effect is euphoric.

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