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Check your insulin level before seeing Mary Poppins 

When the original Disney feature came out in 1964, the ubiquitous trailers, clips and sound bites from Mary Poppins were more than enough to convince me to give this animated hybrid a wide berth. Forty years later, when the new stage version opened in London, Disney Theatricals had stripped away the animation, recruiting the savvy mega-successful Cameron Mackintosh to co-produce and the estimable Richard Eyre to direct. As the bumbershoot-borne nanny flew toward Broadway late in 2006, my interest revived. Reviews of the show were glowing, asserting that Mackintosh and his creative team — most notably scriptwriter Julian Fellowes and composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe — had brought new power and depth to the story, along with some of the chiaroscuro of real life.

So I was still wary of Mary's fructose propensities as she entered the Banks household last Friday evening at Belk Theater, but optimistic as well. The magical nanny arrived innocuously enough, taking all kinds of impossible things — including a lamp and a bed — out of her apparently empty rucksack while singing one of the new Stiles-Drewe tunes, "The Perfect Nanny," to the adorable Banks kids.

Yet my hopes were cruelly bludgeoned over the course of an agonizing one-hour-and-16-minute first act whose sugariness was eclipsed only by its tedium. All of the most fearsome hits of the movie are reprised, "Chim Chim Cher-ee" fattened up with new lyrics and the already obnoxious "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" now insufferably bloated with enough grandiose Matthew Bourne choreography to embarrass Queen Elizabeth. "A Spoonful of Sugar" remains relatively unscathed, but even without Julie Andrews' insidious pronunciation, spoonful is a mammoth understatement. I saw at least a potful.

Mercifully, the second act is far better — and nearly 15 minutes shorter. We get the spectacular Miss Andrews, the harpy nanny responsible for daddy George Banks' screwed-up views of marriage, banking and child-rearing. Yes, that was me shouting "Brava!" (half in admiration and half in gratitude) after Ellen Harvey's histrionic, operatic rendition of the Andrews calling card, "Brimstone and Treacle," as she begins her reign of terror. Up until then, the major plot complication, Mary's capricious departure, had arisen out of nothing more serious than the children's rough treatment of a ragdoll.

This new tyrant-from-hell gives the children a palpable reason to flee from home, provides Mary with a formidable foe and a righteous cause for wielding her magic, and adds emotional weight to the kids' reunion with their "practically perfect" nanny and their reconciliation with their chastened parents. She's a lot of fun while she lasts. Now it would be a mistake to presume that Miss Andrews is any more three-dimensional than the great Disney villainesses of Snow White or 101 Dalmatians, but two dimensions work for this meteoric cameo. They also work for the stuffy, warped and love-deprived George Banks, rendered in a standard-issue caricature by Laird Mackintosh.

Flatness isn't nearly as desirable for Mary and her oddball pal, Bert the artful chimney sweep. With so much magic attending her throughout the evening, small fry might not notice that Caroline Sheen has all the crinoline starchiness of Mary Poppins but little of the charisma to go with her plummy voice. Dominic Roberts brings a nearly indomitable blandness to the raffish Bert that is only slightly dispelled in the evening's most spectacular production number, "Step in Time," deep in Act 2. As super-colossally excessive as anything in Act 1, the tap-dance extravaganza could at least claim a point at the end, when Mary and the kids sported the soot of the tap-tap-tapping chimney sweeps as if it were a working-class badge of honor.

And yes indeedy, I did like Camille Mancuso as Jane Banks and Talon Ackerman as little brother Michael, naughty without being obstreperous and sweet without being cloying. Hopefully this ideal balance carries over to Paige Simunovich and Cade Canon Ball, who alternate with the kids I saw as the sibs. Some really fine character actors fill out the cast, including Mary VanArdsel as the pathetic Bird Woman and Mike O'Carroll as George's patrician boss, the Bank Chairman. Blythe Wilson must brave the remake of Mommy Banks into a meek team-player. The five notes of "Being Mrs. Banks" echo the first five notes of "Beauty and the Beast," tipping off the intent. Some of the Mrs. Potts' warmth comes through, but it's coupled with her servility.

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