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Practically perfect

Mary Poppins is an exuberant celebration of musical theater

Caelan Creaser and Harry Turpin bring magic to Mary Poppins and Bert. Photo credit: Tacoma Musical Playhouse

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As an adult, I don't have much of an emotional connection to Mary Poppins. I had seen the film version once or twice as a child, but had largely forgotten the details, so color me pleasantly surprised at sitting down to watch Tacoma Musical Playhouse's production of Mary Poppins and to have a flood of entrenched memories and affection wash over me.

This is a musical of pure, unbridled joy, with a steady backbone of wistful melancholy (mostly provided by George Banks, the stern patriarch of the Banks family, a paragon of lost innocence). The story of Mary Poppins is familiar to just about everybody, so there's no sense in describing it with too much detail. Needless to say, the Banks family is in need of a nanny, after the kids, Jane and Michael (portrayed in my showing by Summer Mays and Ian Bartlett), have successfully driven away another in a long string of nannies. Mother Winnifred (Carrie Sleeper-Bowers) is being forced into a life as a socialite, while George (Jonathan Bill) can think of nothing but keeping his job at the bank.

Enter the whimsical elements, in the form of jack-of-all-trades Bert (Harry Turpin, in a wonderful performance that wisely avoids trying to imitate the immortal Dick Van Dyke), and the magical, mysterious Mary Poppins (Caelan Creaser, deftly evoking the classic character's mix of inscrutability and persnickety perfectionism), who arrives unexpectedly to shape up the Banks house.

From then on, Mary Poppins is a freight train of dazzling visuals and nearly wall-to-wall musical numbers, featuring an enormous cast, including roughly 12 side characters and 10 ensemble singers and dancers, rapid-fire costume changes, and inventive special effects. This is an almost exhausting celebration of the scope of musical theater. At first, Mary Poppins seems like the kind of production that emphasizes form over feeling, but the story subtly sets in to a surprisingly nuanced look at how sad it can be to lose sight of the wonders of childhood and the importance of rewarding goodness.

The sets, as designed by Bruce Haasl, are all immaculate and nimble, enabling the show to traverse from one set-piece to another as briskly as possible, and they all take advantage of the depth and space provided by a stage as big as the one at TMP - the stage also provides ample room for musical numbers as big as the likes of "Step in Time," an ambitious thing featuring thrilling wire-work and almost every cast member tap-dancing in unison. Of course, old favorites like "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Practically Perfect" are here, though I was surprised at the blazing energy of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

As in the film, the most innately interesting characters remain Mary and Bert, and Creaser and Turpin do a fine job bringing these characters to life. The stealth MVP, though, may be Jonathan Bill as George Banks, whose melting from aloof to vulnerable to exuberant slyly highlights the real story of the show, behind all the magic.

At nearly three hours with intermission, including a first act that's close to 90 minutes, Mary Poppins can be a bit of a gauntlet for smaller children. Still, this is a lavishly assembled production that any grade-school-aged kid (or any adult) should delight in seeing.

Mary Poppins, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., through July 31, $27-$31, Tacoma Musical Playhouse, 7116 6th Ave., Tacoma, 253.565.6867

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