Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Brett Beiner.
For countless Americans, including me, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins was the first movie and first musical that could be called their favorite. (I made my mother take me to see it four times on its theatrical run in an era in which there was no other way to see a film.) Julie Andrews’ indelible performance utterly defined the character, and Dick Van Dyke’s whimsical take on Bert (and on a Cockney accent) endeared him to children everywhere even if that accent made film critics cringe. The movie was, for many of us, our introduction to the character of the magical nanny on Cherry Tree Lane, and we have loved her ever since.
All of this is to say that, when the 2004 Cameron Mackintosh stage musical premiered, it was like a prayer answered. Yet somehow, in all of the years since, fate has conspired to keep me from seeing it. Until now. And I’m happy to say that the Marcia Milgrom Dodge-directed (and choreographed) production now playing at Drury Lane Theatre lives up to fifteen years of pent-up anticipation. Featuring a stellar cast, a fanciful Kevin Depinet-designed set featuring images of books like those in which M.L.Travers introduced the character, and wonderful (and colorful) period costumes by Robin L. McGee, this musical will re-ignite the fire of innocent joy that most adults have long since left behind as it awakens their inner child with exuberant and playful fantasy.
Book writer Julian Fellowes recaptures all of the eccentricities of the original movie and takes them several steps beyond. Travers’ nanny was not the spoonful of sugar that Andrews portrayed on screen; she had a serious side as well that was tamped down to make a children’s movie. Fellowes resurrects this hint of darkness as well as a real and serious threat to the Banks children in the form of the severe nanny of their father’s youth. This plus a greater and more genuine danger to Mr. Banks’ livelihood makes for a more complicated story that can’t be resolved by a wooden leg named Smith.
Emilie Lynn is practically perfect in every way as Mary. Whether playfully cavorting with James T. Lane’s excellent and extremely limber Bert in the park or on the rooftop (settings that are defined by Kevin Loney’s beautiful projections), trying to calm the rambunctiousness of the Banks children (Sebastian Merlo and Grier Burke in the production I saw), or magically cleaning up a kitchen disaster, Lynn shows us Mary’s jolly side while her sometimes-frustrated darker side hides just beneath the surface. This is a Mary Poppins capable of simply taking all of the toys from the nursery if Jane and Michael will not behave as easily as she can show them a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious time on outings, and Lynn exemplifies both sides beautifully. She’s even perfect while soaring in or out on the wind.
Lane’s Bert is not as goofy as Van Dyke’s, but that just makes him that much more interesting. As with Mary, there is more depth in this incarnation of Bert, and his touching and heartfelt second act advice to the broken Mr. Banks rings more true because of it. Matt Crowle is just as perfect as the fastidious Banks, whose own inner child was stamped out by his intolerant and brutal childhood nanny Miss Andrew (a delicious Holly Stauder), and Alexis J. Roston complements him well as the loving wife who hates seeing him lose his humanity bit by bit. The leads are surrounded by a wonderful ensemble that features standout moments for Catherine Smitko as the Bird Woman and Harriet Nzinga Plumpp as the owner of a store where one can purchase just about anything.
Dodge’s choreography is often stunning, especially in the iconic “Step in Time” sequence, and her direction creates many lovely moments. (She does have an unfortunate tendency to leave Mary and the Banks kids standing in a line gaping a lot, but perhaps there is little to be done about that.) Combined with Paul Rubin’s flying sequences, Dodge’s work moves this large ensemble around beautifully, and the fullness of even background characterizations shows off a director who doesn’t miss a trick.
You will absolutely love this Mary Poppins. I know I did, and the audience couldn’t get enough cheering in when it was over. The lovely final image of Mary flying away for the last time while the united Banks family frolics in the park really got to me even though I, like any Poppins-phile, knew it would be coming. This is a loving, beautiful play, and I sincerely hope that everyone gets to see it.
Mary Poppins is now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL, until Jan 19. The show runs approximately three hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.