Mary Poppins is a rare breed indeed, and not just because she can fly under the power of an umbrella. The Disney musical based on the marvelous books by P. L. Travers is a marvel for children to be sure, but it’s also just as entertaining for adults. You’re more than willing to forgive it for toning down (way down) the darker elements of Travers’ stories simply because it’s so infectiously joyous. And if you think Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is a silly song? Well so it is. But it’s also a barn-burner of a showstopper in Matthew Bourne’s choreography, a production number that will leave you utterly gleeful.
In its latest touring incarnation, Mary Poppins has lost none of its zip and vigor, or, crucially any of its ensemble members. Often by the time a tour comes through for a second time, the corner-cutting is apparent. Not so here. Directed by Richard Eyre, the ensemble is robust, the production values top tier. Crucially, the magic is intact.
The music (by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, with newer songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) is a mix of show-tune comfort food (the achingly lovely Feed the Birds, the appropriately soaring Let’s Go Fly a Kite and the ebullient Jolly Holiday) and spectacular dance pieces (Step in Time, which – in addition to its irresistibly percussive choruses - includes the remarkable sight of a chimney sweep striding upside down across the rooftops of London). As show tunes go, Mary Poppins’ score isn’t particularly subtle or insightful. The lyrics area not Sondheim. But they are goodhearted fun, and that is precisely what you want if you’ve got a five-year-old (and/or a five-year-old-at-heart) in tow. Moreover, Bourne’s choreography is splendid. If you’re not smiling when Cornelius and his statuesque compatriots spring to life in the park, you’d best check your pulse and/or your attitude.
Travers might not entirely recognize the Disneyfication of her characters. The musical – like the classic Disney film before it – offers a kinder, gentler counterpart to the terse, acerbic heroine of the page. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. As the touring version's super nanny, Rachel Wallace is sweeter and far less threatening than Travers’ Poppins, but she’s got enough tartness to put an edge on a role that could be saccharine. She also sounds terrific. As Bert, Nicolas Dromard leads the sweeps with a grace that calls to mind Astaire and the limber athleticism of an elite gymnast. When he propels himself into over-the-rooftop midair splits, you’d swear he had momentarily conquered gravity. Where Mary Poppins falters ever so slightly is in the diction of Jane (Annie Baltic) and Michael (Reese Sebastian Diaz). The children have a tendency to rush their lines and the result is a mishmush of inarticulateness at times. Their parents are more compelling: Laird Mackintosh is properly buttoned up and repressed as the workaholic Mr. Banks while Blythe Wilson brings just enough angst to the neglected Mrs. Banks.
As characters to, the elder Banks have a fairly predictable journey. If you don’t think Mr. Banks will realize the importance of family and Mrs. Banks will experience a rush of feminist awakening thanks to their new nanny, you just haven’t been paying attention. It’s to Wilson and Mackintosh’s credit that the Banks’ evolution is heartwarming rather than merely treacley.
No wonder, as the song says, it’s Mary that we love.
Mary Poppins continues through Nov. 6 at the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph St. Tickets start at $25. For more information go to www.BroadwayinChicago.com
For additional reviews of Broadway in Chicago productions click here (Next to Normal) here (Worting) here (rain), here (Les Miserables), here (9 to 5), here (Wicked) here (Traces) here (Billy Elliot), here (The Addams Family), here (In the Heights) and here (A Bronx Tale ).