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STAGE REVIEW

'Mary Poppins' shines, in the most delightful way

Steffanie Leigh as Mary Poppins. Steffanie Leigh as Mary Poppins. (Joan Marcus photo)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2011

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‘Practically Perfect’’ is how the seemingly heaven-sent nanny Mary Poppins describes her character, when challenged by her querulous new charges at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. You could dispense with that qualifier for the show itself, which is making its Boston debut at the Opera House as a touring production. It is perfect. Drawing on the 1964 Disney movie but surpassing it in artistry and subtlety, this “Mary Poppins’’ is family entertainment of the highest order.

If your memories of the movie aren’t the fondest (it was awfully hyper — indeed, proto-psychedelic, with its mix of live action and animation), it may help to know that this version is more of a character study, though one lavished with splashy production numbers. Drawing on a broader assortment of P.L. Travers tales, Julian Fellowes has fashioned a funny yet insightful script, and the interpolated songs — clever concoctions by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (the team behind “Honk!’’) — up the ante dramatically.

Playing Bert, the chimney sweep and jack-of-all-trades who seems to have a history with the mysterious Mary, Nicolas Dromard immediately sets a tone of relaxed camaraderie; he’s a warm, guiding presence, not a cute-at-all-costs Cockney clown. And Steffanie Leigh, the newly appointed Mary Poppins — she assumed the role only a few weeks ago — is a marvel. Always leading with her chin (in such a way that she must look down her nose at all she surveys), this Mary appears to be silently savoring some private joke — something along the lines, perhaps, of “what fools these mortals be.’’

Because this is a household which, despite its superficial propriety (designer Bob Crowley has devised an ingenious set that unfolds like a Victorian pop-up book), is courting long-term disaster. Paterfamilias George Banks (Michael Dean Morgan, pinched, with the pallor of library paste) is so focused on getting ahead at the bank that he ignores his touchingly eager-to-please wife (Blythe Wilson) and two desperate-for-attention children (on opening night, Paige Simunovich and Cade Canon Ball). They’ve become brats, pure and simple. If Mary hopes to improve their prospects, she’ll need to do a lot more than rein in their behavior. All-out family therapy — by means of an across-the-board attitude adjustment — is in order.

But first some fun: an expedition to the ordinarily boring park, where this time the marble statues come to life (Garett Hawe is all Nijinskian liquidity as the water god Neleus); preparations for a tea party that go hilariously awry (the kitchen spectacularly implodes, but Mary is magically able to set it aright).

Not so fun is an expedition to Father’s workplace, a black-and-white trompe l’oeil vault populated by bent-over scribes, and “Playing the Game,’’ a nocturnal rebellion fomented by mistreated toys. The latter scene is downright creepy, even more harrowing than an ensuing visitation by Mr. Banks’s hilariously horrible former governess, a.k.a. the “Holy Terror’’ (Q. Smith, acing a forte soprano glissando). Given these possible scare factors, plus the play’s fidget-inducing length (nearly three hours), you might want to leave your really little ones home. Six or so on up (you best know your child) might be a sensible guideline.

But for those who get to go, thrilling memories are in store: of a colorful candy emporium that also deals in words (what would “Mary Poppins’’ be without a salute to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’’ here performed with ever-accelerating precision choreography?), and a tap extravaganza set on a twilit rooftop. Amid all the stage magic, Mary Poppins’s final departure makes for a memorable closing image. We can only hope — for future audiences’ sakes — that she’ll soon be back.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at smacd@aol.com.

MARY POPPINS Musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film, co-created by Cameron Macintosh with book by Julian Fellowes, original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Directed by: Richard Eyre. Co-director and choreographer: Matthew Bourne. Set and costumes, Bob Crowley. Lights, Howard Harrison.

Presented by Broadway Across America, through March 20. At: Boston Opera House. Tickets: $30-$140. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayacross america.com/boston