As brisk and self-assured as the “practically perfect” nanny of its title — a woman who knows just when a family needs her services most, and just when it is time to grab her carpetbag and umbrella and fly off to another assignment — Mercury Theater Chicago’s production of “Mary Poppins” moves like the wind.
When: Through May 28
Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport
Tickets: $30 – $65
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
Director L. Walter Stearns wastes no time at all in spinning a story that almost everyone between the ages of five and 95 can summarize in a flash. He just sweeps his audience right into all the familiar pleasures of the musical inspired by P.L. Travers’ tale (and the Disney film) about the healing of a dysfunctional upper middle-class Edwardian English family. And choreographer Brenda Didier gets everyone dancing in demanding high style in the show’s two big numbers — “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Step in Time.”
Nothing is belabored here, as two children (and their parents) are deftly transformed by the magical ways of a woman who knows what is of value in life, though perhaps isn’t quite as perfect when it comes to settling into romantic happiness for herself. And the result is a show that moves just quickly and efficiently enough to appeal to both adults and children.
At once intimate and charming, this ideally cast edition makes its points and then gets on with things — much like that Poppins woman who is so adept at sweetening the sour aspects of life and finding a way to encourage people to act on their best instincts. Of course there also is the ever-beguiling score by those Hollywood brothers, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (with the seamless addition of songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe), all expertly played here by a six-piece band led by music director Eugene Dizon.
Mary Poppins (the easily engaging Nicole Armold, whose powerful voice and natural acting bring a lovely reality to her character), arrives at the home of the Banks family on Cherry Tree Lane in London just in the nick of time, and she is an ideal fit according to the requirements listed by the Banks children (played on opening night by the impressive Casey Lyons as Michael and Sage Harper as Jane, with Peyton Owen and Pearle Bramlett as alternates). To be sure, Poppins is a no-nonsense young woman, but she brings her own particular touch of magic and imagination to even the most mundane activities. And along with her friend, that fleet and whimsical chimney sweep and weekend painter, Bert (Matt Crowle, a song-and-dance man of blithe talent and easy grace) — who clearly is in love with her, but senses the futility of pressing his case — she brings a sense of joy into the children’s life, and also does her part in repairing the tense relationship between their parents.
It is husband and father George Banks (rail thin Kevin McKillip, who manages a Scrooge-like misanthropy and enlightenment) — a rigid, socially conscious, financially insecure bank manager — who is the children’s biggest problem. Clearly deeply scarred by his own authoritarian nanny, Miss Andrew (clarion-voiced Holly Stauder is pitch-perfect as this soul-crushing woman), he is emotionally closed to Michael and Jane just when they need him most. He also finds constant fault with his wife, Winifrid (a warm portrayal by the rich-voiced Cory Goodrich), and refuses to let her return to her former career as an actress, deeming the profession unrespectable. Ironically enough, George’s one altruistic act — giving a loan to Northbrook (Cameron Turner) a young builder of factories, as opposed to the smarmy international huckster, Von Hussler (Graham Hawley) — pays the greatest dividends in the long run, and sparks a transformative effect.
Along the way, Mary Poppins introduces her charges to the exuberant Mrs. Corry (stylishly played by Leah Morrow), and the sad but good-hearted Bird Woman (a fine about-face by Stauder). And the Banks’ household staff — the perpetually beleagured housekeeper Mrs. Brill (the very droll Erin Parker), and her inept young assistant, Robertson Ay (wonderful physical comedy courtesy of Timothy Eidman) — are a perfect pair.
Set designer Adam Veness again proves himself a master of putting big ideas on small stages. Rachel Boylan’s costumes are full of color. And yes, Mary Poppins has a couple of brief, decidedly modest, but perfectly effective bits of flying (courtesy of Vertigo), although it is the upended kitchen pantry (which magically rights itself), that earns almost as much applause.
Finally, applause too for Dizon’s unseen (but highly skilled) band which includes Linda Madonia, Anthony Rodriguez, Greg Strauss, Lindsay Williams and Sarah Younker.