Among the countless delights of director Gary Griffin’s production of “Mary Poppins” — which opened Wednesday at the Marriott Theatre, and should easily become THE hot ticket of the holiday season — is the way he has so subtly but skillfully un-Disneyized this stage version of the classic film.
Without sacrificing any of the story’s built-in magic, including that inspired by the altogether delicious score of those Hollywood masters, Richard and Robert Sherman (with additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe), Griffin has fully exposed the compelling heart of P.L. Travers’ story and the show’s rich, witty book by Julian Fellowes. And in telling the tale of the “practically perfect” nanny who restores the balance in a troubled middle class family that finds itself on very shaky emotional and financial ground, he makes it a worthy companion piece to both “Peter Pan” and the novels of Charles Dickens.
By tapping many of the most gifted and practiced musical theater artists on the Chicago scene, Griffin also showcases the depth of talent in this city, and demonstrates that only in the rarest of cases should it be necessary to “import” actors from Broadway. At the moment, the Marriott’s Lincolnshire stage can easily compete with anything in New York, with the added bonus of a unique level of intimacy.
And then there is Summer Naomi Smart, who, from the moment she arrives onstage in a blue, window-pane-checked Edwardian outfit, convinces you she was born to play Poppins. A delicate beauty whose grace, ease, charm, wit and timing are paired with an exquisite blend of acting, dancing and vocal skills, Smart makes all memories of Julie Andrews instantly fly out the window. Brisk, confident and playful, she seems to have stepped from the pages of Travers’ book. And she is paired with the equally effortless and engaging Bernie Yvon as Bert, the chimney-sweep and weekend painter who clearly adores her, and with whom she shares the most enigmatic of relationships. (Watching these two you wonder if there might not be a “prequel” to be written about some earlier fractured affair they had.)
Griffin also has seen to it that the dysfunctional Banks family of Cherry Tree Lane — investment banker George (volatile Rod Thomas), his wife, former actress Winifred (a beautifully limned portrayal by Susan Moniz), and their two rebellious children, Jane (Madison Gloria Olszewski) and Michael (Johnny Rabe) — are impeccably rendered. Each, in his or her own way, is starved for love and approval. And it is Poppins who enables them to rediscover what really matters in life.
Paula Scrofano brilliantly nails every comic opportunity as the Banks’ family’s much-oppressed maid, with Matthew Crowle as her droll sidekick and Rebecca Finnegan marvelous as both George’s fearsome nanny of the past, and the endearing Bird Woman. And there are winning turns by Devin DeSantis as a fraudulent businessman, Jameson Cooper as a working class hero, William Carlos Angulo as a remarkably stony statue, and Johanna McKenzie Miller as a zany dispenser of games.
Alex Sanchez’s choreography is a knockout throughout, and he and the sensational chorus really pull out all the stops with a grand-scale tap number for the chimney sweeps. Michael Mahler’s musical direction, and the orchestra (under Patti Garwood) are flawless. And costume designer Nancy Missimi has outdone herself with scores of glorious Edwardian finery.
And what about that iconic umbrella-driven flight you ask? I will say only that set designer Tom Ryan, projection designer Mike Tutaj and a spoonful of imagination are all that is needed.
When: Through Jan. 5, 2014
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Info: (847) 634-0200; www.MarriottTheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission