Friday, March 04, 2016

Quite a Spoonful of Sugar: Even In a Much Smaller House, 'Mary Poppins' Remains Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mary Poppins
NightBlue Performing Arts Company
Stage 773, Chicago
Thru March 27

One of my favorite things as a musical theater buff is seeing how shows translate to various stops along the theatrical life-cycle.

For the true measure of a musical's musical chops can often be better assessed through local, community and scholastic productions than on Broadway, London's West End or big budget national tours.

And one can also gauge the distinction of smaller theater entities by how well they provide audiences with a rather holistic sense of the original source material--including nifty staging gimmicks--on a relatively shoestring budget.

Given how much I liked NightBlue Performing Arts Company's rendition of The Producers last year--a musical I had seen a dozen other times, ranging from Broadway to community theater--I can't really say that I was shocked by how well they staged Mary Poppins in a small space.

But I was delighted

I have loved the stage version of the 1964 Walt Disney movie since first seeing it in London in 2005, not too long after it began a 3 year run there.

Along with ebullient Sherman Bros. songs from the film--"Jolly Holiday," "Spoonful of Sugar," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Let's Go Fly a Kite," "Step in Time,"--and terrific new tunes such as "Practically Perfect" and "Anything Can Happen" (by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe), much of what made Mary Poppins so memorable in the West End was hearing the gasps as the title character elevated up to the balcony in the stately Prince Edward Theatre.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
This also happened at Chicago's Cadillac Palace, where I saw the show twice in 2009 on the first National Tour after Mary Poppins' 2006 Broadway bow--where it ran for 6 years--and also on a somewhat downscaled 2011 tour.

Particularly at full-octane, the musical featured terrific scenery--such as a full-sized house (on Cherry Tree Lane)--and some magical stage effects created by illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, including a kitchen that gets wrecked and then restored.

In London, I had seen the original stage Mary, Laura Michelle Kelly, and Bert, Gavin Lee. The latter also debuted the role on Broadway, alongside Ashley Brown, and both participated in the first national tour.

Having also caught a solid regional production of Mary Poppins in 2013 at the Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire--featuring the splendid Summer Smart and the late, great Bernie Yvon--I knew the show could still generate smiles on a smaller scale, but went to Stage 773 on Wednesday wondering just how many sacrifices NightBlue PAC would have to make to fit the show into the roughly 125-seat Thrust theater at the venue.

Understandably, the production was not nearly as grandiose as the ones I saw in London or downtown Chicago, but to the great credit of everyone involved, it pretty robustly provided the full essence of Mary Poppins as a stage musical.

Excepting some opening night audio issues--popping microphones, variances in volume--the production values of this Mary Poppins are genuinely impressive.

All the costumes one would expect Mary, Bert and others to don have been well-replicated by David E. Walters--also the show's director and NightBlue's Artistic Director--and Laura Walters.

The fine use of video projections designed by Max Maxin admirably complements the scenic design by Diane Kaffka without ever seeming like a chintzy compromise to the constricted space and modest budget.

This was particularly true in the way "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was rendered. While lacking some physical accoutrements present in the West End and on tour, the production number still came off delightfully.

Also showing that NightBlue is intent on doing all it can to appropriate the special touches of the original productions, the kitchen scene scene was ably re-enacted in an economical way.

With musical director Austin Cook and a 6-member band, all the great songs cited above were played with gusto, and the cast was first-rate throughout.

With a great smile plastered on her visage, Kyrie Anderson made for a wholeheartedly likable Mary Poppins, with Ryan Dooley doing fine work as Bert. As Mr. and Mrs. Banks, whose home Mary flies in to serve as nanny, Joseph Smith and MacKenzie Skye are notably good, with terrific singing voices.

The kids playing Michael and Jane Banks--Liam Dahlborn and Sage Harper, who was also great recently in Seussical at Marriott--are really wonderful.

There is also excellent work done by the ensemble, with much great dancing choreographed by Kevin Bellie, most demonstrably on the sensational "Step In Time," albeit without as much tapping as in the past. 

Without wanting to reveal when or how, I'll even share that this fine production even manages to get Mary and her magical umbrella airborne.

So although I've seen more spectacular versions of Mary Poppins, in most of the ways that really matter, this intimate production approaches being practically perfect.

I was debating between bestowing @@@@ or @@@@1/2 (out of 5) but decided the former is a more appropriate gauge of what I experienced. That said, it certainly seems possible that once some technical wrinkles get ironed out, the latter could be entirely justifiable.

Either way, for just $20 on HotTix, this crowd-pleasing version of Mary Poppins--and by all means, bring the kids--should serve as a good (re)introduction to one of the better stage musicals of the 21st Century, well justifying its existence beyond the beloved film, even without all the trappings of Broadway. 

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