This Christmas season, the Drury Lane Theater is hosting DISNEY AND Cameron Mackintosh’s MARY POPPINS, the 2004 musical based on the stories of PL Travers and the 1964 Walt Disney film. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs and choreographs this uplifting story about a magical nanny who shows up just in time to help the families who need her most – in this case, the Banks family. In a strong ensemble, Emilie Lynn shines with a Broadway-worthy performance in the title role.
From the moment she flies onto the stage, Lynn nails the dignified, detached sense of authority required of the famous nanny with her chin held high, perfect posture and graceful movements. While she won over the Banks kids with her talent for turning tasks into games and turning a walk in the park into a scene from a fairy tale, she also charms viewers of all ages with her shrewd sense of humor, gentle wisdom, and breathtaking singing. Lynn’s bell-like soprano floats with apparent ease through the beloved original songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman as well as the catchy additions by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. While comparisons to the author of a role in this case are rarely helpful or fair to the current performer, I mean it as the highest praise to say that Lynn’s performance is as masterful as Julie Andrews’ in the film.
With Mary Poppins as a nanny, the miracle is always around the corner for her young protégés Jane and Michael Banks (played by Nicole Scimeca and Hunter DiMailig in the show I attended). Jim Steinmeyer’s illusions bring Mary’s mysterious powers to life on stage. But outings with Mary are not just entertainment; Every adventure teaches a subtle but valuable lesson. Dancing on the rooftops shows that problems from above don’t look so bad. Feeding the birds shows the importance of looking beyond what the eye can see. And as the company finale proclaims, “Anything can happen if you let it.” This family-friendly musical may be a little darker than the movie, but it is full of hope and goodwill.
Of course, the Mary Poppins story is more about parenting reform than about children. In the musical, George and Winifred Banks (Matt Crowle and Alexis J. Roston) get more detailed backstories than in the film. George’s tightly wounded nature and inhibited emotional life are chalked up by the influence of his childhood nanny, Miss Andrew or “The Holy Terror” (whom we briefly meet in a group of Holly Stauder who is the stuff of childish nightmares). Crowle is honored as George, a man whose career is on the verge of disaster and whose family is falling apart. His transformation as he remembers his teenage dreams, mending relationships with loved ones and, as he says, “rediscovering humanity” is truly heartwarming and deeply understandable for the adults in the audience. As Winifred, Roston has less extensive material to work with, but she uses the former actress’ struggle to live up to her husband’s and London society’s expectations.
James T. Lane shows an outstanding performance as Bert, an all-rounder from painter to chimney sweep. With a constant wink and a Cockney accent far more convincing than the often-mocked attempt by Dick Van Dyke, Lane serves as the casual narrator and encourages the mysterious atmosphere that surrounds Mary’s sudden comings and goings. While he is a standout singer and actor, Lane’s most memorable talent is his dance, which comes to the fore in the rousing tap number “Step in Time”. In another notable twist, Catherine Smitko delivers a poignant duet as Bird Woman with Lynn in the melancholy ballad “Feed the Birds”. While a couple of supporting characters are not to my liking – for example, I found the slapstick physicality of Sawyer Smith’s Robertson Ay over the top – this production has many top-notch performances overall.
Both the musical and Disney film are based on PL Travers’ children’s stories, and Kevin Depinet’s scenic design and Kevan Loney’s projections emphasize those literary origins. Two oversized books frame the proscenium sheet and distribute their pages on the stage. They provide a canvas for projections that incorporate text from Travers’ books and whimsical illustrations. Watercolor-like projections suggest places like St. Paul’s Cathedral, the park, and the waterfront, but the images are fragmented and unrealistic to create a dreamlike quality. Most of the time, the stage is free of large set pieces, with the exception of a large staircase. Aside from the beautiful projections, the stage often feels too empty to evoke the magical elements of the story.
Robes L. McGee’s colorful costumes fill this gap and connect the dots between the everyday life of the Banks children and their enchanted antics with Mary. “Jolly Holiday” shows Edwardian fashion from the perspective of a rainbow filter, and in “Playing the Game” the old-fashioned children’s toys are creepily brought to life. On the other hand, the fantastic vision for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” with a mixture of continental European folk styles seems to come back from the left field in a rainbow palette. While there is a lack of cohesion between costumes, sets and projections, there are many interesting visual moments throughout the show.
MARY POPPINS is a crowd puller to feel good, but there are also content-related messages for all age groups on which the imaginative children’s story is based. What better time than holidays to remind us of the importance of family and hope for a fresh start? When Mary Poppins finally flies away, loved, but no longer needed by the Bankses, we are left with the image of a loving family that is again in harmony with itself and with one another. If that’s not a practically perfect ending, I’m not sure what it is.
DISNEY AND Cameron Mackintosh’s MARY POPPINS will run through January 19 at Drury Lane Theater, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181. Single tickets ($ 60-75) are available at 630.530.0111 or DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Photo credit: Brett Beiner