By Erin Fleming
There is only one word to describe NightBlue’s production of Mary Poppins.
Stage 773’s thrust theater might seem like an odd choice of venue to present Mary Poppins, the hit Broadway musical known for it sensational spectacle and theatricality.
Unlikely, perhaps, but very effective in the hands of the creative team at NightBlue.
Producer/Director David Walters has found a way to recreate the world of Mary Poppins that is at once larger than life and right at home in this scaled down and intimate setting.
Expect just as much magic, mystery and mayhem as there are in the books, film and bigger productions.
Richard and Robert Sherman’s beloved tunes from the Disney movie like, “Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” and “Jolly Holiday” are included, along with new music from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the best of these being “Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen.”
Clever use of projected backdrops on a scrim suggest the various places visited by Mary and the Banks’ children: the rooftops of London, Cherry Tree Lane, Mrs. Corry’s Talk Shop, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the heavens.
A few movable set pieces and props are whisked on and off efficiently by nearly invisible stage hands during smooth, fluid transitions.
Lighting and sound effects work in tandem with the beautiful score to add textured details, such as the individual letters of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” lighting up in the sky as they are sung, Mary conversing with birds and dogs in their native tongues and pigeons heard fluttering around the cathedral steps.
Instead of using a lot of high-tech hocus pocus, the magical moments rely on old school theatre tricks that work up close: a full size hat stand is pulled out of a carpetbag, topsy-turvy shelves and broken furniture repair themselves, a collapsed three-tiered cake is re-inflated—all within inches of audience members.
Families will enjoy watching a show with a familiarly dysfunctional family at its center, and an incredible multi-generational ensemble featuring Sierra Naomi, Matthew Provencal, Ryan J. Duncan, Jake Stempel, Brian Fimoff, Tim Casey, Kara Schoenhofer, Mo Allen, Josie Burck and Paul Packer.
Ryan Dooley charms as the affable factotum Bert, Mary’s best friend and fellow adventurer, guiding the audience through the action as a screever, a street cleaner and of course a chimney sweep.
(A screever, by the way is a sidewalk chalk artist.
In many family-friendly shows, there’s often an unevenness to the cast due to the inexperience of the child actors, but in this production, the roles of the Banks’ children are played by two young performers who act and sing with the polish of long-time professionals.
Liam Dahlborn is great as the mischievous son Michael.
If he was thrown off by the technical difficulties with his microphone on press night, he didn’t show it.
Sage Harper is a joy to watch as young Jane Banks, adorable whether she’s being naughty or nice.
The challenging roles of Mr. and Mrs. Banks are handled well by Joe Smith and MacKenzie Skye.
It is Skye’s endearing portrayal of a loving and frazzled wife and mother being pulled in too many directions that will resonate most with a modern audience; her nuanced and funny choices conspiring to make “Being Mrs. Banks” a better song than it is.
Caron Buinis is delightfully menacing as Nanny Andrew, her brilliant vocal command during “Brimstone and Treacle” is used to great effect.
EXcusingly cranky and more than a bit fed up by the conditions in the Banks’ home, servant Mrs. Brill is hilarious in the seasoned comic hands of Judy Knudtson, indicating that she’d be right at home on an episode of Downton Abby, one of Mary Poppins book writer Julian Fellowes’ more recent projects.
Poppins herself is portrayed by the wonderful Kyrie Anderson, whose gorgeous soprano anchors most of the songs and really shines on “Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen.”
In contrast to both the stiff and stern nanny of P. L. Travers’ books and the unflappable, rosy-cheeked sunniness of Julie Andrews, Anderson creates a proper, not stuffy, good-humored Mary who suffers no nonsense and seems to control everything happening around her.
As Michael says of his nanny, “She’s tricky, but she’s bloody good!”
Laura Walter’s costumes are a colorful explosion of whimsy and wonder.
Infusing the space with moving melodies and soaring harmonies, Music Director Austin Cook showcases a well-rehearsed ensemble full of stand-out soloists that fills every inch of the stage with Kevin Bellie’s rousing choreographed production numbers. “Step In Time” will have theatergoers stomping and clapping along.
David Walters says he set out to “tell the intimate story of a family that discovers what is most important in life with the aid of a determined nanny.
Oh, and don’t worry, we’ll sprinkle plenty of fairy-dust over this tale.”
Children and adults will agree that that’s exactly what he’s done.
It might be a little long for smaller children, running at two hours and thirty-five minutes with intermission. The pace can’t be faulted, and the energy of the performers doesn’t slow, but the restlessness in the press night audience was palpable during the final 20 minutes.
Of course, you’ll want to stay to the very end to see Mary Poppins fly up, up, and away with the west wind. Be sure to catch her while she’s still in town.
Unless a better word can be found, this production can only be described as …
NightBlue Performing Arts Company presents “Mary Poppins” through March 27 at Stage 773, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Performances are Thursday through Sunday. More information and tickets ($25 – $37.50) are available by phone at (773) 327-5252 or online here.