Pictured: The cast of MARY POPPINS. Photo by Brett A. Beiner
Review: MARY POPPINS at Mercury Theater Chicago
By Elizabeth Ellis
The reworking of a beloved classic film to a musical theater piece can be fraught with challenges and the potential for disappointment. Will theatergoers be able to view the new theatrical version as separate from the original, or will their cherished memories cloud their ability to see this reimagined version as a stand-alone work? In the words of a friend, “a little bit of both.”
The stage musical of MARY POPPINS offers the film’s fans both a nostalgic visit to the Banks family residence at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as well as several new songs and some changes to the plot. Jane and Michael, the Banks children, are still very naughty and their parents, George and Winifred, need to find the children a nanny with a strong guiding hand. Enter Mary Poppins (yes, she does fly in), still practically perfect in every way, and sets about to whip the home into order, using a spoonful of sugar and more than a little magic.
In the Mercury’s production, Walter Stearns directs the cast at a speedy pace but also creates moments of real connection and humor. Brenda Didier’s fantastic choreography sparkles, especially in the show-stopping “Step in Time” and energetic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The entire cast handles the vocal demands of the score beautifully. Nicole Armold’s Mary is all cool crispness and British efficiency, though with a little more of a mischievous nod to the audience than the film’s version. Kevin McKillip and Cory Goodrich as Mr. and Mrs. Banks combine excellent comic timing with moments of real affection. The Jane and Michael in this performance, Sage Harper and Casey Lyons, bring out the adorable sides of the children without lapsing into saccharine cuteness. The standout performer in the show is Matthew Crowle as Bert: chimney sweep, de facto tour guide, and one man Greek chorus. Crowle infuses Bert with grace and charisma, and is easily the most fun to watch onstage.
Several aspects of the show could use some fine tuning. Some of the actors’ accents run a little wobbly, and some of the special effects for this big show, while likely to work seamlessly in a larger venue, are hard to create in the more intimate Mercury space.
The changes to the story can be tough to swallow for the film’s die-hard fans. Walt Disney wasn’t able to procure the stage rights to Mary from creator P.L. Travers, and years later British mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh was able to nab them. But, of course, Disney owns the copyright on Walt’s version of the story, and that wonderful Sherman brothers score. In order to bring Poppins to the stage, a marrying of the original stories and Walt’s crowning achievement was required, via a new book by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. Winifred Banks’ devotion to and participation in the nascent suffragette movement has been scrubbed, and she is instead reduced to being a former actress trying to portray the perfect banker’s wife. The finale, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” which helped to reunite the family and end the film on an upward note, is moved to begin Act 2. Uncle Albert’s delightful tea party on the ceiling can’t happen due to the laws of gravity, and Admiral Boom doesn’t shoot off his cannon and cause the house to shake.
If you and your family love the story of Mary Poppins, and can appreciate this interpretation as not a direct adaptation from the film version, but as a hybrid of the Disney version and the original Travers tales, you will enjoy this fine production.
MARY POPPINS runs through May 28th. For more information visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com.