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Chicago by John Olson

Mary Poppins
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of Curtains and Richard's review of The Screwtape Letters

Mary Poppins
Ashley Brown, Abigail Droeger, Christopher Flaim and Gavin Lee
Whether due to the tepid notices by the New York critics, or maybe a glut of family shows on Broadway at the time, Mary Poppins, while successful enough, did not and has not yet lived up to expectations that it would become a blockbuster of the magnitude of The Lion King or Wicked. Neither of those factors should hurt business for this show's first North American tour, which opened in Chicago on March 25th with Broadway stars Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee leading a mostly new company, and delivers a hugely entertaining family-friendly spectacle. Family-friendly as defined here includes parents and grandparents not only because they may remember the books and 1964 Disney film fondly, but because the libretto by Julian Fellowes (Academy-Award winning screenwriter of Robert Altman's Gosford Park) adds just enough social comment to the kid lit content of the original for a little adult reflection. In his touching on themes of class consciousness, feminism and capitalist greed, Fellowes has given us a spoonful of E.M. Forster along with his P.L. Travers.

None of this gets in the way of a good time, though. Mary Poppins is presented in the spirit and with the pacing of the old English Music Hall entertainments which so many of its songs emulate. Even the dark edges of the script—including unkind comments the father Mr. Banks has made about his wife repeated by their children, the child Michael's observation that the a chimney sweep is dirty, and Mrs. Banks' shunning by the upper class ladies she's invited to a tea—are performed with a smile and glossed over quickly. This is still Disney, after all, and fortunately co-producer Cameron Mackintosh has had some experience by way of Les Miz in making social comment entertaining to a mass audience.

Fellowes' book combines incidents from the Disney film and several of the P.L. Travers books about the magical nanny who brings some humanity to the social-climbing family of banker George Banks and gives some very funny lines to the unflappable nanny who knows just how to play both the children and parents of the Banks family. The book gives context and a little breather between the songs, but the importance of the show's big production numbers is revealed in the co-direction credits given to stage director Richard Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne. Bourne, the highly acclaimed choreographer of contemporary ballet musicals Swan Lake and The Car Man, uses the 38-member cast to create spectacular numbers out of "Jolly Holiday," "Precision and Order," "Supercalifragisticexpealidocious" and "Step in Time," which include Gavin Lee as Bert dancing sideways and upside-down around the full proscenium arch.

As much as anyone, though, the show belongs to set and costume designer Bob Crowley, who creates both a fanciful look at upper-middle class London circa 1900 and the fantasy world of Mary's excursion with her charges Jane and Michael Banks. A city park on a foggy day turns into the pastel-colored world of Bert's drawings for "Jolly Holiday," the children's nursery gives way to reveal the rooftop of the Banks' home, jumping off point for excursions into the stars. Back on Earth, he gives an imposing, Citizen Kane-like perspective to Mr. Banks' bank, with a skewed perspective of its marble columns and domed ceiling. Crowley's costume designs cover a range of Londoner professions and social classes, from beggars to royalty as well as human-sized toys and statues come to life. Together with lighting designer Howard Harrison, he's created amazing visual design and effects—enough for three amazing shows, really. With computer-generated images having taken much of the amazement of special effects in the movies, maybe the stage is the last medium where we can still wonder "how they did that," and Mary Poppins provides that sense of astonishment.

None of this is this is meant to minimize the contributions of the performers. The show requires two star performances in the roles of Mary and Bert, and tour audiences are fortunate to see the original Broadway stars in the parts. Ashley Brown has an angelic soprano and a supremely confident yet warm take on her character that makes us love Mary as do Jane and Michael. Gavin Lee is a charismatic song and dance man and his Bert is as much as Mary the heart and focus of the show. Jane and Michael, played at the press performance by Abigail Droeger and Christopher Flaim, are central to the story and onstage more than either Mary or Bert. The two young performers are able to carry the show to a degree seldom expected of child performers and to balance the misbehavior of their characters with enough charm and likability for us to care about them. (Their alternates are Aida Neitenbach and Justin Hall). The entire cast—directed for the tour by Anthony Lyn and resident choreographer Tom Kosis—has the confidence, sure timing and energy one finds in the early month of a Broadway show and were more than ready to face audiences and the critics after two weeks of previews.

It's clear that Mackintosh and Disney threw everything they could at this project—certainly money, but also a pedigreed creative team including Eyre (former director of the Royal National Theater), Bourne, Crowley and orchestrator William David Brohn, who gives a lushness to the original songs by the Sherman Brothers as well the tuneful new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. If it all risks being too much at times, that's a reason for a return visit to soak in more of the pleasures of this very big show.

Mary Poppins will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre through July 12, 2009, with evening performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays & Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays (no Sunday evening performances on April 5 or July 12). Matinees are at 2:00 on Wednesdays and Saturdays and 1:00 p.m. Sundays. There will be Tuesday performances at 7:30 p.m. on March 31, June 30 and July 7. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices (24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St. and 18 W. Monroe St.); the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at (312) 902-1400; all Ticketmaster retail locations, and online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com. Tickets are available to groups of 15 or more by calling (312) 977-1710. For more information please visit www.MaryPoppinsTour.com or www.BroadwayInChicago.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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