Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Practically Perfect Mary Poppins Helps Marriott's Production Rise Above Restricted Airspace -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mary Poppins
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Directed by Gary Griffin
Thru January 5, 2014

My affinity for Mary Poppins, the stage musical, is a bit surprisingly--mostly to myself--substantially more tied to the musical itself than to the classic 1963 movie.

I certainly saw the Disney film as a kid and have always retained an affinity for infectious Sherman Bros. tunes like "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

But until I watched a good chunk of the movie on Thanksgiving night, it had been eons, while even before catching a performance Friday night at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, I had seen the stage version four times since 2005--first in London and then 3 times on two national tours at Chicago's Cadillac Palace.
And I really loved it onstage, certainly in no small measure due to the classic songs, but also due to a smart "book" by Julian Fellowes that deviates from the film a bit--and supposedly gleans a bit more from P.L. Travers' books--and strong original tunes such as "Being Mrs. Banks" and "Anything Can Happen."

I had the good fortune of seeing the original London Mary, Laura Michelle Kelly, and Gavin Lee as Mary's painter-park dweller-chimney sweep pal Bert. Lee reprised his role on Broadway and he & Broadway's original Mary, Ashley Brown, were in the first touring cast that I saw twice in Chicago. A subsequent 2011 tour with Rachel Wallace and Nicholas Dromard was also stellar (as I offered in this review).

But along with excellent performers and some terrific production numbers--for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Step in Time," among others--part of the magic from up high in a large theater was seeing Mary Poppins quite literally (well, almost) fly.

It was a thrill--accompanied by audible gasps--when the nanny and her umbrella soared to the rafters of the Prince Edward Theatre and Cadillac Palace.

Certainly, the creatives at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire--which, as we were reminded while being asked to subscribe, has the largest subscription base of any theater in the country--have regularly devised ways to offset the staging challenges posed by their theater in the round. 

While I actually pay a good bit more (ad hoc) for musicals at Marriott than for Broadway in Chicago downtown musicals (I'm a subscriber to the latter), I understand their spatial limitations but have been routinely impressed by the quality of their productions.

Although I was looking forward to seeing Mary Poppins at Marriott--especially upon reading that Summer Naomi Smart, one of Chicago's best and most beautiful actresses, would be starring in it--my expectations were dampened by a disparaging review by the Tribune's Chris Jones, whose opinions I highly respect.

While praising Smart and other performances--deservedly--Jones belittled the ring of video screens on
which certain scenery was depicted and Mary's "flying" was enacted.

Though I may have been swayed by Jones' aversion, I too found the video screens to be unnecessary, especially as the projections were rather amateurish and cheesy.

But though I didn't love this production as much as the London/touring Broadway versions I'd seen—largely due to the video screens and the concomitant inability to ever let Mary take flight—unlike Jones, who award 2 stars out of 4, I found much more to enjoy about Marriott's Mary Poppins than I didn't.

Beginning with Summer Naomi Smart.

Like the song goes, as Mary she was “practically perfect in every way,” looking lovely, singing wonderfully, acting engagingly and even doing a good bit of dancing.

It's a good thing Mary Poppins is no longer running on Broadway as it's easy to imagine Smart being smartly swept up by NYC (though that possibility would still seem to loom).

But Smart isn't the only standout in this cast. Longtime Chicago actor and Marriott veteran Bernie Yvon is fun and well-sung as Bert, and key roles are filled with highly talented performers, including Susan Moniz (Mrs. Banks), Rod Thomas (Mr. Banks), Paula Scrofano, John Reeger, Rebecca Finnegan and at the performance I saw, Madison Glora Olszewski (I believe, though it could have been Caroline Heffernan) and Johnny Rabe as Jane and Michael Banks. 

Truly, the entire ensemble was quite impressive.

So by no means did I feel this rendition of Mary Poppins—helmed by Chicago's most acclaimed theatrical director, Gary Griffin—was predominantly subpar. Rather the contrary, despite the spatial challenges and some choices that were made.

The blissful songs, strong book, excellent performances, appealing—if not quite downtown-dazzling production numbers--and luminous leading lady were sufficient enough to keep a smile on my face most of the evening.

And while I can't quite rave like I did upon seeing Mary Poppins at full-tilt, I wouldn't dissuade anyone taking in a jolly holiday performance, with or without their kids. 

For even if Mary here is unable to fly—and the kite in “Let's Go Fly a Kite” gets only slightly more elevated--the musical itself remains not only uplifting but... (see photo below). 

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