LOU'S VIEWS: Beef & Boards banks on Disney

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Lou Harry

Some claim that the overwhelming dependence on tried-and-true material—flamed by the success of Disney hits—has crippled creativity on the Great White Way, leading to formulaic programming where the audience knows what to expect and gets it delivered in a pretty package.

mary-poppins-1col.jpg Cara Statham Serber plays the title role in Beef & Boards’ “Mary Poppins.” (Photo courtesy of Beef & Boards)

Others point to the dearth of top-notch new musicals in the early 1990s before Disney arrived and the vibrancy of 42nd Street today (the actual street, not the musical) vs. the cesspool it used to be. And they point to “The Lion King.” How can you argue with “The Lion King”?

(Yes, this is a review of Beef & Boards’ production of “Mary Poppins.” I’ll get to that.)

Both sides tend to forget that Disney actually took a big risk when it first set foot on Broadway in 1993. Oh, sure, Disney had turned its films into ice spectacles and arena shows, but “Beauty and the Beast,” was something different. It asked that audiences not only buy life-size teacups and spoons, but spend top ticket prices on material that was already available on their VCRs.

If you don’t remember VCRs, ask your parents.

“Beauty and the Beast” proved a hit on Broadway, of course. You’ve probably seen it on tour, at Civic, or at your local high school. It’s coming back again, on a non-Equity tour, next season, but it’s hard to imagine people being too excited. Back in the day, though, it was a breath of fresh theatrical air thanks to actually having a score that, unlike its contemporaries, sounded joyfully like old-school Broadway.

To its credit, Disney could have just put more straight-up adaptations on the production conveyer belt. Instead, for its follow-up, it took a greater risk. Rather than simply attempt, as “Beauty” did, to recreate as closely as possible the look of the original, Disney put the prize property in the hands of a visionary director. The result was the still-running blockbuster, “The Lion King,” which has now outlived most lions born when it premiered in 1997.

Disney isn’t foolproof. Given their quick demise on Broadway and the rarity of subsequent productions, it’s difficult to label “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan” as anything but duds. And “101 Dalmatians” proved that some properties just don’t translate to the stage. To put it mildly.

Where does “Mary Poppins” fit into the mix? Somewhere in between. The original London production—darker than the one that made it to Broadway, toured, and is now licensed for regional theaters—attempted to combine the movie’s magic with elements from the original books as well as new material. It represents an honest attempt to create something theatrically magical without alienating those who love the film.

Specifically, the show’s creators have filtered the movie, eliminating such impossible-to-stage elements as the dancing penguins, the runaway carousel horses, and the whole “I Love to Laugh” sequence. Instead, there’s now an evil nanny, some creepy life-sized toys, and a mix of the familiar tunes and new ones of varying quality. On tour, it had the good sense to allow its cast to create nuanced characters rather than slavishly copy Julie Andrews and company.

Of course, at Beef & Boards, one shouldn’t expect the kind of visual magic that was a hallmark of the big-budget productions. You don’t see Mary sliding up the banister, the “Jolly Holiday” sequence is awkwardly un-magical, and the creepy toy scene is just awkward.

ae-mr-and-mrs-banks1-15col.jpg Heather Patterson King and Eddie Curry play as Winifred and George Banks. (Photo courtesy of Beef & Boards)

What “Mary Poppins” is really about, though, is the reconnecting of stodgy Mr. Banks to his children courtesy of a magical nanny. That connection is the element that works best in Beef & Boards’ production. Heather Patterson King is in beautiful voice as Winifred (this actress must play Mother in “Ragtime” soon), Kennedy Martin is fine as Jane, and Logan Sejas (who, with “ZirkusGrimm” and “A Winter’s Tale” under his tiny belt, is building one of the most interesting acting resumes in Indy) offers a terrific Michael Banks. And it’s difficult to imagine a better George Banks than Eddie Curry, a practically perfect performance even more remarkable considering that he also directed the production.

The fact that Mary (Cara Statham Serber, also in wonderful voice) doesn’t pop is not really a problem. Sure, it would help if she had a more charismatic Bert to play off of, but this Mary is there to help, not to dominate. And her hint of emotional attachment to young Michael at the end provides just the right touch—although it is odd how she blows off Jane.

Certainly better than “High School Musical” but not up to “Aida” or “The Jungle Book,” “Mary Poppins” (playing through June 29) didn’t push me out of my wishy-washy opinion of Disney’s impact on theater. But that’s OK. Like many a producer, Disney Theatricals is trying to be as creative as possible within the limits of box-office acceptance. And to create shows with long, healthy lives beyond London and New York. Do I wish there were more original musicals in the pipeline? Of course. Do I wish that audiences would take chances on material they aren’t already well versed in? Yes. Am I hopeful when I am reminded that Disney also produced “Peter and the Starcatcher”—based on a novel and not a movie—yes.

Will I be pleased when “Newsies” inevitably is announced for a Beef & Boards production one of these years? Sure.

And did I wish a team of chimney sweeps worked my neighborhood and danced on my roof? Of course.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.


  • pricing
    Connie: Apparently someone can afford it, because the show is a near sell-out. Nobody should judge what's affordable to others, but the price (closer to $150 for non-premium seats for the four of you) is not out of line for dinner and a fully professional, Equity show. Compare that to roughly the same price to take the same foursome to a Civic Theatre musical or the non-Equity "Addams Family" that toured into Clowes (both sans meal). --Lou
  • Who can afford it
    Love to take my 3 grandchildren but who can afford 40-50 a pop. That would be a $200.00 night for me. Not happening in this family unfortunately
    • The Disney System
      The film to Broadway route has been so successful for the Disney company, one cannot help but notice the style and quality of songs and characters in the recent Disney film - "Frozen". It struck me immediately, while watching the very first song, that the project was written with an eye to the stage version that eventually will evolve. They may drop the comic snowman, but most of the film's elements are readily transferable.

    Post a comment to this story

    We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
    You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
    Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
    No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
    We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

    Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

    Sponsored by

    facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

    Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
    Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
    Subscribe to IBJ
    1. Aaron is my fav!

    2. Let's see... $25M construction cost, they get $7.5M back from federal taxpayers, they're exempt from business property tax and use tax so that's about $2.5M PER YEAR they don't have to pay, permitting fees are cut in half for such projects, IPL will give them $4K under an incentive program, and under IPL's VFIT they'll be selling the power to IPL at 20 cents / kwh, nearly triple what a gas plant gets, about $6M / year for the 150-acre combined farms, and all of which is passed on to IPL customers. No jobs will be created either other than an handful of installers for a few weeks. Now here's the fun part...the panels (from CHINA) only cost about $5M on Alibaba, so where's the rest of the $25M going? Are they marking up the price to drive up the federal rebate? Indy Airport Solar Partners II LLC is owned by local firms Johnson-Melloh Solutions and Telemon Corp. They'll gross $6M / year in triple-rate power revenue, get another $12M next year from taxpayers for this new farm, on top of the $12M they got from taxpayers this year for the first farm, and have only laid out about $10-12M in materials plus installation labor for both farms combined, and $500K / year in annual land lease for both farms (est.). Over 15 years, that's over $70M net profit on a $12M investment, all from our wallets. What a boondoggle. It's time to wise up and give Thorium Energy your serious consideration. See http://energyfromthorium.com to learn more.

    3. Markus, I don't think a $2 Billion dollar surplus qualifies as saying we are out of money. Privatization does work. The government should only do what private industry can't or won't. What is proven is that any time the government tries to do something it costs more, comes in late and usually is lower quality.

    4. Some of the licenses that were added during Daniels' administration, such as requiring waiter/waitresses to be licensed to serve alcohol, are simply a way to generate revenue. At $35/server every 3 years, the state is generating millions of dollars on the backs of people who really need/want to work.

    5. I always giggle when I read comments from people complaining that a market is "too saturated" with one thing or another. What does that even mean? If someone is able to open and sustain a new business, whether you think there is room enough for them or not, more power to them. Personally, I love visiting as many of the new local breweries as possible. You do realize that most of these establishments include a dining component and therefore are pretty similar to restaurants, right? When was the last time I heard someone say "You know, I think we have too many locally owned restaurants"? Um, never...