By Barry Reszel
Indeed the stars are out for Mercury Theater Chicago’s brilliantly sung production of the family favorite, Disney’s Mary Poppins.
The newest, and among the brightest, in Director J. Walter Stearns‘ wonderful constellation is Nicole Armold. Already carving out a name for herself at Chicago Shakespeare (Ride the Cyclone and Sense and Sensability), Lifeline Theatre (Northanger Abbey) and Light Opera Works (The Merry Widow), Armold creates a snorting Poppins of her very own who delights both veteran and first-time visitors to Cherry Tree Lane.
Her voice is magnificent and her control of the stage, an absolute necessity for this demanding role, is complete. What’s more, this talented, young actress is surrounded by a veritable Who’s Who at the Jeff Awards.
Matt Crowle returns to the role written for him, reprising his 2014 Paramount Theatre performance as Bert the lovable chimney sweep. The combination of Crowle’s physical comic prowess and his rubber band flexibility make this Chicagoland treasure the perfect Bert (or Cosmo Brown for any production of Singin’ in the Rain).
So, too, do Banks family patriarch and matriarch, portrayed by stellar stage vets Kevin McKillip and Cory Goodrich, add to the star power. Goodrich’s “Being Mrs. Banks,” a telling, hallmark number in Richard and Robert Sherman‘s rich songbook, is gorgeous and wistful. And McKillip’s transformation to unencumbered George is downright gleeful.
Holly Stauder is magnificent x2. As the lonesome bird lady, her “Feed the Birds,” among the most memorably haunting songs in the American musical theatre canon, is absolutely superb. And as the Holy Terror, Miss Andrew, Stauder’s Cruella deVil-inspired look only adds to the poisonous “Brimstone and Treacle.” Also doing multiple-role duty is the excellent Leah Morrow, who’s particularly memorable as Mrs. Corry, the generation-transcendent owner of the talk shop, where conversation peddling turns into the rousing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” near Act 1’s end.
Erin Parker and Timothy Eidman are delightfully comic servants in the Banks abode, Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay. And in the key roles as Banks children, Jane and Michael, Pearle Bramlett and Peyton Owen truly starred in all aspects of their performances at the production this reviewer attended. Sage Harper and Casey Lyons share the roles at alternate performances and have also been highly recommended.
For those needing a Mary Poppins refresher, a full synopsis of the musical is here. Cameron Mackintosh‘s 2004 West End and 2006 Broadway productions, on which this Mercury run is based, offer both a nod to and departure from the Mary Poppins children’s books by P. L. Travers and the 1964 Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
In addition to those already noted, well-known, wonderful songs include “Jolly Holiday,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kit,” “Step in Time” and “Anything Can Happen.” Each of these in the Mercury production is performed with joyful excitement, accompanied by smoothly executed dance choreographed by the fabulous Brenda Didier.
It’s important to note, however, that London/Broadway productions truly took this lyric as a technology marching order: “If you reach for the stars, all you get are the stars; But…if you reach for the heavens, you get the stars thrown in.” That’s punctuated by the receipt of eight Tony nominations in 2007 but only one win—for best scenic design. The visual tricks were ornate, the technology superb (they tap danced upside down, suspended from the top of the proscenium, for goodness sake), and Mary’s flying into the audience was jaw dropping
But therein lies the trap for next gen producers of this piece, particularly in small houses like the Mercury, where the venue’s greatest asset is true intimacy gained by the closeness of audience members to the performers.
At times, seemingly in effort to match patrons’ supposed tech expectations, this production tries to do too much. Gags like the moving dishes in the Banks’ kitchen or even Mary’s flight from the rooftop seem less than sparkling, almost amateurish. In truth, this reviewer doesn’t think Stearns gets his money’s worth out of performer flying effects, puppet design or his magic consultant.
That said, when the director remembers that reaching for the heavens at the Mercury comes via the combination of top-notch talent and utter simplicity, that’s when the magic happens. To wit, the beginning of the kite flying scene featuring Bert and the Banks children and the use of large basic letter blocks to spell out the world’s longest word are but two among many examples of true, albeit uncomplicated, magic.
Without question, this Mary Poppins is a must for those looking to introduce the Banks family and their supernatural nanny to the next generation. So, too, it’s the (spit) spot to find a constellation of Chicagoland musical theatre stars in their natural, intimate habitat, doing what they do best.
Mercury Theater Chicago presents “Mary Poppins” through May 28 at 3745 N Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett A. Beiner.