Chicago Theatre Review
The Perfect Nanny
Mary Poppins – Marriott Lincolnshire
From P.L. Travers’ imaginative series of books, to Walt Disney’s 1964 classic Oscar-winning film, to producer Cameron Mackintosh’s Olivier Award-winning West End production that transferred to Broadway for a seven-year run in 2006, “Mary Poppins” has always been about magic. While Chicago’s first regional professional production lacks many of the technical effects found in the original and touring shows, this is a more intimate production that’s less about special effects, but still filled with magic of all kinds.
The real magic is in Jeff Award-winning director Gary Griffin’s warm-hearted focus on family, parental love and caring and prompting people to look beyond initial impressions. Susan Moniz and Rod Thomas bring so much to their portrayals of Winifred and George Banks, the upper-middle class parents of Jane and Michael. In the original Broadway production, the focus was almost entirely upon the magical nanny’s influence on her charges; Griffin goes one better, fashioning a production in which Mary Poppins’ subtle lessons are learned by both the parents and their children.
In Rod Thomas’ George Banks, the audience meets a status-obsessed breadwinner who feels his wife should be content simply running the house and doing occasional charity work. When his job becomes in jeopardy, Mr. Thomas turns into a man with whom everyone can identify these days. His emotion is honest and heartrending, as is Ms. Moniz’s frustration at feeling useless. While Mary Poppins teaches George to appreciate the love found in a caring, supportive family, she urges Winifred to finally stand up for herself. The children (beautifully acted, sung and danced opening night by Madison Gloria Olszewski and Johnny Rabe as Jane and Michael) go from caustic to caring, from naughty to nice. Young Rabe is an especially talented young actor, bringing a sincerity to his character, a clear singing voice and a consistent, crisp British dialect.
The most magical of all is the casting and perfect portrayal of Mary Poppins by Summer Naomi Smart. Audiences won’t see someone trying to be Julie Andrews (star of the 1964 Disney film), but a magnificently talented actress who brings a crystal clear singing voice, impeccable diction and all the dance moves, posture and attitude expected from the magical nanny. Travers would be proud of Ms. Summer’s portrayal, so in keeping with the original stories. She possesses the requisite British sternness that covers an impish delight to her achievements with the Banks family. There isn’t another local actress who could play this role better, and bravo to the Marriott for casting this show with some of Chicago’s finest.
Other excellent performances include Bernie Yvon as a warm, fatherly Bert, who pops in and out of the musical as both Mary Poppins’ chimney sweep friend and the play’s storyteller; the always wonderful Rebecca Finnegan as both the evil Miss Andrew and the kindly Bird Woman (whose “Feed the Birds” duet with Ms. Smart is one of this production’s highlights); Paula Scrofano and Matthew Crowle as humorously agile house servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Aye; and John Reeger as both a wonderfully played Bank Chairman and Admiral Boom.
There is, of course, conventional magic in the show’s technical support. Michael Mahler’s musical direction is terrific and his nine-member orchestra, led by Patti Garwood, sounds rich. Nancy Missimi has outdone herself (once again) in costuming these colorful Edwardian characters in fashions filled with stiff collars, high button shoes and flowing pleats, allowing for necessary quick changes. Thomas Ryan’s scenic design makes the most of Marriott’s in-the-round staging, employing Mike Tutaj’s projections to add motion and locale. And Sally Weiss has beautifully met the challenge with some demanding props, from Mary’s parrot head umbrella to a coat rack and other items appearing magically from the nanny’s bottomless carpetbag.
And, of course, there’s magic to be found in the lovely score by the Sherman brothers. Beloved songs, such as “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Step in Time” and the haunting “Chim Chim Cher-ee” join new songs, with music and lyrics from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, that include “Anything Can Happen” and “Practically Perfect.” Screenwriter Julian Fellowes wrote the script, adapted from both the Disney film and the original children’s books. Thankfully this production is shorter and less scary for small children, leaving out “Playing the Game,” in which the toys frighteningly come to life teaching the Banks children a lesson.
There can be no better way to spend family holidays than with a family musical that’s both entertaining and promotes positive lessons and values. And if enjoying this musical sparks a renewed interest in reading the Travers’ books, from which this musical is adapted, or entices the viewing of the Oscar-winning Disney classic film on DVD, so much the better. This is one musical that is “practically perfect in every way.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Oct. 30-Jan. 5 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-634-0200 or by visiting www.MarriottTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.