Chicago Theatre Review
Mary Poppins – NightBlue
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 NightBlue Performing Arts Company’s production lacks most of the high-tech special effects found in the original and touring shows, it remains a charming, far more intimate production. It’s a show that’s less about special effects (although there are several) and more about those delightful characters Ms. Travers created. As such, this eye-catching version is still an evening filled with magic of all kinds.
The real magic is in director David E. Walters’ warm-hearted focus on family, parental love and caring and prompting people to look beyond initial impressions.MacKenzie Skye and Joseph Smith 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; Walters goes one better, fashioning a production in which Mary Poppins’ subtle lessons are equally learned by both the parents and their children.
In Joseph Smith’s George Banks, the audience meets a pompous, 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. Smith turns into a man with whom everyone can identify these days. His emotion is honest and heartrending, as is Ms. Skye’s frustration at not being noticed and feeling useless. While Mary Poppins teaches George to appreciate the love found in a caring, supportive family, she urges Winifred to stand up for herself. The children (beautifully acted, sung and danced by Sage Harper and Liam Dahlborn as Jane and Michael) go from caustic to caring, from naughty to nice. Young Ms. Harper is an especially talented young actress, bringing a genuine sincerity to her character, a clear singing voice and a perfectly consistent, crisp British dialect. With an already impressive resume, she’s a young professional on the brink of stardom.
The most magical of all is the casting and perfect portrayal of Mary Poppins by Kyrie Anderson. 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 right moves, posture and attitude expected from the magical nanny. Travers would be proud of Ms. Anderson’s portrayal, so in keeping with the original stories. She possesses the requisite British sternness that covers an impish delight at her achievements with the Banks family. There are few local actresses who could play this role better, and bravo to the NightBlue for casting their show with some of Chicago’s finest.
Other excellent performances include Ryan Dooley as a warm, brotherly Bert, who pops in and out of the musical, both as Mary Poppins’ chimney sweep friend and as the play’s narrator; the always wonderful Caron Buinis as evil governess Miss Andrew, and the lovely Sierra Naomi as the kindly Bird Woman (whose “Feed the Birds” duet with Ms. Anderson is one of this production’s highlights). Judy Knudtson and Matthew Thomas Provencal are humorous as house servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay, with Provencal an especially impressive, powerful vocalist. And Ryan J. Duncan is both a wonderfully played Neleus, the statue that comes to life, as well exceptional in a number of ensemble roles. In fact, the entire chorus is musically magical.
There is, of course, conventional magic in the show’s technical support. Austin Cook’s musical direction is terrific and his six-member orchestra, tucked away high above the stage, sounds rich and full. David and Laura Walters have outdone themselves in costuming these colorful Edwardian characters in fashions filled with stiff collars, high button shoes and flowing gowns, allowing for some necessary, quick changes. Diane Kaffka’s scenic design makes the most of Stage 773’s intimate staging, employing Max Maxin’s superb projections that add movement and location. Liz Tanner has nicely met the challenge creating some demanding props, from Mary’s parrot head umbrella to a coat rack and other items that appear magically from the nanny’s bottomless carpetbag. And kudos for including some magical flying sequences, thanks to Walters and the Chicago Fly House.
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.
However, this production isn’t without its problems. The musical is longer than most children (and many adults) are able to enjoy. It could be shortened, perhaps by leaving out the frightening “Playing the Game,” and maybe by trimming down the lengthy “Step in Time” production number. While “Jolly Holiday” and, especially, the heart-racing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” are wonderfully choreographed by Kevin Bellie performed with precision, “Step in Time” loses its crispness, as it progresses. The sound amplification is also spotty and too loud for this intimate venue. And one or two of the ensemble might want to turn it down a notch or two, coming off as too big for the space.
But the positives outweigh the difficulties. There can be no better way to introduce children to theatre than with this 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 inspires the viewing of the Oscar-winning Disney classic film on DVD, so much the better. This is one family musical that’s “practically perfect in every way.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 28-27 by NightBlue Performing Arts Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
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