BWW Review: MARY POPPINS at Drury Lane Theatre
This holiday season, Drury Lane Theatre presents DISNEY AND Cameron Mackintosh'S MARY POPPINS, the 2004 musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the 1964 Walt Disney film. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs and choreographs this uplifting tale about a magical nanny who appears just in time to help the families who need her most--in this case, the Banks family. Among a strong ensemble, Emilie Lynn shines with a Broadway-worthy performance in the title role.
From the moment she flies on stage, Lynn nails the dignified, aloof sense of authority required for the famed nanny, with chin held high, perfect posture, and graceful movements. As she wins over the Banks children with her knack for turning chores into games and transforming a walk in the park into a scene from a fairy tale, she also charms audience members of all ages with her sly sense of humor, gentle wisdom, and stunning vocals. Lynn's bell-like soprano floats with apparent ease through the beloved original songs of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman as well as the catchy additions by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. While comparisons to the originator of a role are seldom helpful--or fair to the current performer--in this case, I mean it as the highest praise to say that Lynn's performance is equally as masterful as that of Julie Andrews in the film.
With Mary Poppins as a nanny, wonder is always around the corner for her young charges, Jane and Michael Banks (played by Nicole Scimeca and Hunter DiMailig at the performance I attended). Illusions by Jim Steinmeyer bring Mary's mysterious powers to life on stage. But outings with Mary are not pure entertainment; each adventure teaches a subtle but valuable lesson. Dancing on the rooftops reveals that troubles don't look so bad from higher up. Feeding the birds shows the importance of looking past what the eye can see. And, as the company finale proclaims, "anything can happen if you let it." This family-friendly musical, though somewhat darker than the film, is full of such tidbits of hope and goodwill.
Of course, the story of Mary Poppins is more about reforming the parents than the children. In the musical, George and Winifred Banks (Matt Crowle and Alexis J. Roston) are given more detailed backstories than in the film. George's tightly wound nature and inhibited emotional life are chalked up to the influence of his childhood nanny, Miss Andrew or "The Holy Terror" (whom we briefly meet in a turn by Holly Stauder that is the stuff of childish nightmares). Crowle is excellent as George, a man whose career is on the brink of disaster and whose family is falling apart. His transformation as he recalls his youthful dreams, mends relationships with loved ones, and, as he puts it, "rediscovers the human race" is truly heart-warming and profoundly relatable for the adults in the audience. As Winifred, Roston has less substantial material to work with, but she makes the most of the former actress's struggle to live up to the expectations of her husband and of London society.
James T. Lane gives a standout performance as Bert, jack-of-all-trades from painter to chimney sweep. With a constant twinkle in his eye and a cockney accent much more convincing that the oft-ridiculed attempt of Dick Van Dyke, Lane serves as occasional narrator and fosters the air of mystery that surrounds Mary's sudden comings and goings. While he's a stellar singer and actor, Lane's most memorable talent is his dancing, which is fully on display in the rousing tap number "Step in Time." In another noteworthy turn, Catherine Smitko as the Bird Woman delivers a poignant duet with Lynn in the melancholy ballad, "Feed the Birds." Though a few minor characters are not to my taste--for example, I found the slapstick physicality of Sawyer Smith's Robertson Ay to be over the top--overall this production offers many top-notch performances.
Both the musical and the Disney film are based on the children's stories of P.L. Travers, and Kevin Depinet's scenic design and Kevan Loney's projections emphasize these literary origins. Two oversized books frame the proscenium arch and spill their pages across the stage, forming a canvas for projections that feature text from Travers's books and whimsical illustrations. Watercolor-like projections hint at locations such as St. Paul's Cathedral, the park, and the bank, but the images are fragmented and non-realistic to create a dreamlike quality. The stage is bare of larger set pieces most of the time, with the exception of one grand staircase. Aside from the lovely projections, the stage often feels too empty to evoke the story's magical elements.
Roben L. McGee's colorful costumes tend to fill this gap, connecting the dots between the everyday life of the Banks children and their enchanted escapades with Mary. "Jolly Holiday" features Edwardian fashion as seen through a rainbow filter, and in "Playing the Game," the children's old-fashioned toys creepily come to life. On the other hand, the fantastical vision for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" seems to come out of left field with a mash-up of continental European folk styles, again in a rainbow palette. While there's some lack of cohesion between the costumes, set, and projections, there are nevertheless many interesting visual moments throughout the show.
MARY POPPINS is be a feel-good crowd pleaser, but there are also substantive messages for all ages underlying the fanciful children's tale. What better time than the holidays to remind us of the importance of family and the hope of a fresh start? When Mary Poppins flies away for good, loved but no longer needed by the Bankses, we are left with the image of a loving family, back in harmony with themselves and with each other. If that's not a practically perfect ending, I'm not sure what is.
DISNEY AND Cameron Mackintosh'S MARY POPPINS runs through January 19 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181. Single tickets ($60 - $75) are available at 630.530.0111 or DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Photo credit: Brett Beiner