At the Drury Lane Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Oakbrook Terrace—In 1934, Australian author P. L. Travers published her first “Mary Poppins” story. Mary Poppins is a resourceful and magical English nanny who is carried by the East Wind to sort out the troubled Banks family, living on 17 Cherry Tree Lane in pre World War 1 England. Mary, flying with her umbrella, quickly became an iconic figure in modern children’s literature.
The Mary Poppins stories became an international entertainment industry in 1964 with the success of the Walt Disney movie adaptation starring Julie Andrews. In the 1980’s London theater producer Cameron Mackintosh acquired the stage rights to the Mary Poppins stories, leading to the hit stage adaptation in 2004 in London that featured many songs from the film score as well as new material. The production became a hit upon its Broadway transfer in 2006 and the musical has since become a staple of touring and regional theaters throughout the new millennium.
Which takes us to the revival at the Drury Lane. The show has acquired the fulsome official title of “Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins.” Drury Lane has gone all out its production. There are 27 performers, young and old, listed in the ensemble. Kevin Depinet’s elaborate set and imaginative set design features giant blowups of book pages that presumably reference the literary roots of the musical. Robin L. McGee’s costumes are flamboyantly colorful. Adding to the impressive look and sound of the staging are Paul Miller‘s lighting designs and Ray Nardelli’s sound plan. Special effects abound. The playbill lists a projection designer (Kevin Loney) and an illustration designer (Jim Steinmeyer) Alot of money must have been spent on this production and it shows.
The musical makes a promising start with the aerial arrival of Mary Poppins, dropping from the skies holding her umbrella and wearing her familiar flared skirt and pert black hat. Emilie Lynn looks like a young Julie Andrews in the role, maybe a little too young and too pretty for a character with a mysterious and unexplained past. But Lynn has a radiant voice and a persuasive stage presence and in quick order she convinces us that the title role is in capable hands.
In the first act meet the audience meets George and Winifred Banks and their two bumptious children Jane and Michael residing on Cherry Tree Lane. This part of the show is really a series of separate scenes showcasing agreeably eccentric characters, including statues that come to life in a local park. The staging and performing seem to be doing everything right but the results are pleasant rather than absorbing. Part of the problem may be that Julian Fellowes’s book ambles along episodically with no particular dramatic arc.
The show’s entertainment quotient rises considerably after the intermission, beginning with the appearance of Miss Andrew, the “holy terror” nanny who has taken over for the temporarily absent Mary Poppins. Holly Stauder’s malignant Miss Andrew makes Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” look like a Girl Scout. Mary returns disposes of the gleefully hateful intruder, and the audience applauds Miss Andrew’s humiliating airborne departure from the Banks household.
We finally get some solid narrative roots with George Banks apparently having career ending problems as a bank manager. Banks is humorless and strict as a father until a convenient plot turnaround at the bank gives him a new and humane outlook on family responsibilities (“Mary Poppins” does not lack for sentimentality and moralizing).
For the first act and a half the production numbers were good rather than exciting Choreographer-director Marcia Milgrom Dodge then comes up big in “Step in Time,” the dazzling second act dance number that shows off the hoofing skills of a chorus of chimney sweeps on a London rooftop. From the appearance of Miss Andrew to the end of the evening the audience finally gets some narrative material to sink its teeth into. Until then the production rides largely on the creative physical production and the music and lyrics by Robert M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with songs like “Practically Perfect,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds,” “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee,” “Anything Can Happen,” and, of course, that all-time tongue twister “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”Mary Poppins’s final exit flying over the gawking audience and out of the theater is a can’t miss visual wowser.
Emilie Lynn is very good as Mary Poppins and may be even better as a more mature Mary a few years from now. She is surrounded by quality performers, beginning with James T. Lane as Bert, a Mary Poppins confidant and man of many trades (the Dick Van Dyck role in the movie). Lane sings and dances and even does some acrobatics while suspended by wires above the stage. Matt Crowle delivers some real acting when given the opportunity as George Banks complemented by Alexis J. Roston is his savvy and understanding wife.
In this show, the Banks children aren’t just incidental minor figures. They are onstage a considerable portion of the show doing some serious singing and dances and acting. On opening night Grier Burke and Sebastian Merlo acquitted themselves as total professionals. The two alternate with Hunter DiMailig and Nicole Scimeca during the week. Catherine Smitko makes fine contributions as the feisty Banks maid Mrs. Brill and as the moving Bird Woman, but Sawyer Smith needs to dial down the pratfalls and silliness as a Banks servant.
“Mary Poppins” really is a children’s show for all its expensive production values. But the production does run more than 2½ hours including one intermission. The 8 p.m. curtain time on opening night was delayed almost 20 minutes, so the audience didn’t finally exit the theater until near 11 p.m., a possible challenge for pre-teen spectators. But I sat with kids around me and I didn’t hear a peep out of them from overture to final blackout, indicating their attention span wasn’t tested. And that may be the ultimate validation of the success of this musical. I just wish the first 90 minutes of the show were more absorbing.
“Mary Poppins” gets a rating of
“Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s ‘Mary Poppins’” runs through January 19 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 to $75. Call 630 530 0111 or visit DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. November 2019
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