At the Mercury Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –At the Mercury Theater, executive director L. Walter Stearns does not avoid challenges. The theater is small and technically limited, which doesn’t prevent Stearns from selecting the more demanding modern musicals and reviving them with impressive creativity and professionalism. Consider his amazing stagings of “The Addams Family,” “The Producers,” and “Avenue Q.”
Stearns takes on a huge project in reviving “Mary Poppins,” a show than ran for three years in London starting in 2004 and then 2,619 performances on Broadway starting in 2006. The Disney live show is an adaptation of the hit Disney movie of 1964, adapted in turn by the “Mary Poppins” children’s books written by P. L. Travers. Like the film the musical relies mainly on elaborate production numbers and special effects, easy enough to achieve in a high tech-equipped London or New York City theater but a daunting artistic mountain to climb in the technically modest Mercury Theater.
“Mary Poppins” is a semi fantasy set in Edwardian England, its title character is a mysterious nanny who comes to work for, and ultimately rescues, the Banks family of Cherry Tree Lane in London. Among her other skills, Mary can fly. Visually magical things happen in the Banks household and complex dance numbers involving a vast chorus periodically take over. Any production of the show needs a visual gee whiz factor to succeed because the show itself is erratic, a slender storyline that barely supports a sequence of stand-alone song and dance scenes that require consideration pageantry and invention. There is no way a small and sparsely equipped theater like the Mercury should be able to replicate the spectacle essential to making “Mary Poppins” work, except that Stearns finds a way, and considering his record, should we be surprised?
Photo Credit: Brett A. Beiner
Stearns does have quality tools to work with, like a stellar cast, a first rate choreographer, imaginative designers, and an alternately melodic and exuberant score taken from the movie. Nicole Arnold is a delightful Mary Poppins. Her Mary exudes more charm than mystery and authority, but she is attractive, sings beautifully, dances well, and looks like she stepped off the book jacket of a Travers novel with her flared skirt and famous umbrella. Arnold does soar majestically through the air several times, delighting the spectators.
Arnold is surrounded by a first rate supporting cast led by Matt Crowle as Bert, the Cockney chimney sweep who serves as a wry master of ceremonies when he isn’t singing and hoofing. The production gets a shot in the arm from a superb performance by Kevin McKillip as father George Banks, normally a secondary figure who mostly impersonates a stereotype grouchy family patriarch. McKillip endows George with a real comic personality that can shift into a serious gear. He gives the character a presence I hadn’t noticed in previous exposures to the show, and his awkward comic dance at the end of the evening set the audience hooting with pleasure.
Photo Credit: Brett A. Beiner
The always reliable Cory Goodrich is Winifred Banks, wife and mother, singing potently and evoking sympathy and common sense as a woman struggling to keep her family operational under multiple stresses. Erin Parker endows the housekeeper Mrs. Brill with pleasurable sass and skepticism and Timothy Eidman is fine as the comically inept Banks houseboy Robertson Ay.
Special mention should be made of the two Banks children, youngsters who carry heavy weight in the action. Jane and Michael Banks are on stage much of the evening and they require singing, dancing, and acting skills of grown-up dimensions. The Mercury has found a winning pair in young Sage Harper (Jane) and Casey Lyons (Michael). The duo will alternate during the run with Pearle Bramlett and Peyton Owen.
Holly Stauder dominates the show in her scenes as Miss Palmer, the nanny from hell who goes head to head with Mary Poppins and loses, to the gratification of the Banks family and the audience. Stauder is perhaps a little young for the role but she nails the character’s Gothic sinister and sadistic qualities. Stauder radically reverses character sensibilities with a warm performance as the gentle and sympathetic Bird Woman, with her affecting song “Feed the Birds.”
The show starts slowly as we meet the major characters, and halfway through the first act I was fearful that the Mercury may be a little overmatched. But the entertainment quotient steadily ascends to the final blackout. The break-out scene comes with the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” production number, a dazzling blend of massed dancing and jugging and all round joyous uproar led by Leah Morrow as Mrs. Corry. The number has nothing to do with anything else in the show but it was the evening’s roof-lifting highlight. Full props to choreographer Brenda Didier.
Didier also conquers the show’s other major dance number, “Step in Time,” which requires a lot of room and an abundance of high stepping dancers. The scale of the number is necessarily reduced by the smallish Mercury stage but Didier conquers the space limitations with the assistance of the terrific dancing chorus.
The Mercury design team comes up big, giving the production a colorful and authentic look of London in the early 1900’s. High praise all around to Adam Veness (scenic design), Rachel Boylan (the vast wardrobe of costume designs), and Nick Belly (lighting), with Mike Ross handling the sound design. The six-musician pit orchestra manages to sound like an ensemble three times its size under the musical direction of Eugene Dizon.
Hopefully the hugely annoying claque of male cheerleaders in the audience won’t appear at performances beyond the opening night. Their indiscriminate hollerings of approval do the show no favors. This isn’t the only time first nighters have been forced to endure a siege of rude boisterousness in a local opening night. The group is a pestilence!
“Mary Poppins” is the best family show in town, thanks to Stearns’s stellar direction and the undeniable merits of the show itself at its best. I will best remember McKillip for elevating George Banks into a virtual co-star with the title character. The best musical numbers are a joy and the production values throughout suggest a production budget with very deep pockets, every dollar well spent. The next show up at the Mercury will be a summer revival of “Hair,” a considerable shift in thematic gears. I can hardly wait.
“Mary Poppins” runs through May 28 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6 p.m., with Thursday matinees at 3 p.m., from April 20 through May 25. Tickets are $30 through $65. Call 773 325 1700 or visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April2017
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