Chicago Theater Review: MARY POPPINS (Mercury)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 8, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


As the supplicating ballad puts it, “Let’s hope she will stay.” Not just the quintessentially “practically perfect” nanny, Mary Poppins is a kind of cosmic cure. Given the state of our disunion, we probably need to swallow helping and heaping spoonfuls of sugar: Disney’s aggressively buoyant movie musicalization cavorts across the Mercury Theater stage, enchanted by L. Walter Stearns’ all-singing, all-dancing, all-cheerful tribute to P.J. Travers’ wonder-working Victorian nanny. Resistance is futile. “Let’s go fly a kite.”

Upright to uptight, the desiccated Banks household is the scene of a transformation very similar to what Peter Pan does for the Darling mansion just down the street or what a little girl from India does to a similarly frozen world when she discovers a “secret garden.” She opens up doors, windows and entire rooftops.

As with The Sound of Music‘s Maria, another Julie Andrews confection, this nanny inexplicably abandons her chosen children in order to make them feel so much less miserable when, equally inexplicably, she returns. (Child abuse can be cute, I guess.) Add a touch of Toy Story, as Mary animates the dolls and playthings of Jane and Michael, and you’ve got a pretty potent childhood classic come to love and life.

Replacing a string of bad nannies who have thrown up their hands at the Banks’ bratty kids (Sage Harper and Casey Lyons on opening night), Mary Poppins (Nicole Armold, unflappably cheery and almost supernaturally smug) has no references but plenty of pluck. Embarking on a non-stop “Jolly Holiday,” this white witch single-mindedly opens up the stuffy Banks abode to the real world of Cockney chimney sweeps, a magically restored living statue, happy kite-fliers in a London park, an elderly bird feeder with a heart of gold, a gypsy fortune teller who plays word games, and an umbrella that makes Dr. Who’s telephone booth look very stationary.

This relentlessly good influence inspires Mrs. Banks (Cory Goodrich as a pre-feminist prototype) to become more than a hostess in her home and a frustrated thespian. Mary’s implacable rightness induces crusty Mr. Banks (Kevin McKillip), a stiff-necked practitioner of precision and order, to finally discover that banks should lend money to good people with excellent ideas, not simply use money to make money. (This, of course, is the most relevant parallel from 1890 to 2017.) A multi-tasker before her time, Mary also fends off the bad nanny (Holly Stauder) who ruined Mr. Banks’ childhood and, with a lifetime supply of “Brimstone and Treacle,” threatens to do the same for another generation. Best of all, Mary finds a very congenial soul mate in the philosophical chimney sweep Bert, played by Matt Crowle with totally contagious charm.

The busy and often beautiful staging delivers Adam Veness’s pop-up and fold-out storybook scenery and DJ Reed’s rolling props that depict everything from the rooftops of London to the dormer bedroom where Mary sleeps with the once recalcitrant Banks kids to levitating cakes. Brenda Didier’s choreography regales us with the pulse-pounding, broom-banging exuberance of “Step in Time,” the break-out kitchen romp of the hypoglycemic “Spoonful of Sugar,” the full-out and contagiously silly “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the chirpy busker delights of “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and the concluding liberation anthem “Anything Can Happen If You Let It.” (A very curious moral, it could apply equally to saving serious children from depression or unleashing a new bubonic plague around the world.)

Exuberant as these hijinks look and feel, they neatly fit the formula enshrined in The Rainmaker, The Music Man, and Hello, Dolly: A mysterious to mystical stranger enters a closed and cold world—and alters everything but herself. M.P. and her tough love is a dogged puncture of pomposity and a relentless instigator of happiness and hope. Get out of her way if you know what’s good for you!

photos by Brett Beiner

Mary Poppins
Mercury Theater Chicago
3745 North Southport Avenue
Wed at 7:30; Thurs at 3 and 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 3 and 7:30
ends on May 28, 2017
for tickets, call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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