Mary Poppins soars into Palace Theatre

    Photo by Joan Marcus.

    Kites have been flying “up to the highest heights” in the Loop this spring as the North American National Tour of Mary Poppins makes it debut in the Windy City.

    Australian novelist Pamela Lyndon Travers wrote the first of eight stories about Mary Poppins, the mysterious, flying nanny in 1934. Thirty years later, Disney released a film version starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. The film became an instant classic, winning five of the 13 Academy Awards for which it was nominated (including Andrews for Best Actress and Richard and Robert Sherman for Best Music.) The American Film Institute ranked Mary Poppins at number six on its list of the Top 25 Musicals of All Time while Premier Magazine named Poppins one of the Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.

    Original Broadway stars Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee headline this new touring production, which will play the Palace Theatre until the wind changes Jul. 12 (the show then moves on to Cleveland for a three-week engagement). Brown flawlessly embodies the stern yet comforting nature of the iconic nanny with a voice that is “Practically Perfect” for the part. Lee is pleasantly charming as Bert, the chimney sweep/artist who narrates the chaos occurring at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

    The chemistry between Brown and Lee (who originated his role in the London production) emanates during their magical outings with the adorably menacing Banks children. Having driven away their fair share of nannies, Jane and Michael (capably played by two sets of alternating children) encounter a formidable match in the witty caregiver and her jovial friend.

    The Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee” anchors a score that features “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” the show-stopping “Step in Time” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” performed in a memorable manner that gives new meaning to the phrase “body language.” George Stiles and Anthony Drewe contributed additional lyrics to the original music while crafting new songs such as “Being Mrs. Banks” and the show’s penultimate number “Anything Can Happen.”

    English theater producer Cameron Mackintosh acquired the rights from Travers in 1994. Mackintosh entered into a partnership with Disney to produce a version of the show for London’s West End in 2004. The show’s book is based on both Travers’ original story and the hit movie, so while your favorite childhood songs remain as catchy as ever, the scenes leading up to them have changed.

    The dancing penguins and carousel horse race featured in the film versions of “Jolly Holiday” have been replaced by a ballet of statues while Poppins’s anthem “A Spoonful of Sugar” no longer serves as the character’s introduction. The children’s visit to their father’s banker job still causes problems for their father at work but in a more realistic way than the run on the bank scene from the movie. The differences between the stage and film versions allow both to be enjoyed for their own unique merits.

    One major storyline-impacting change involves the reworking of the Mrs. Banks character. No longer a dizzy women’s suffragist, Winifred Banks (aptly portrayed by original Broadway cast member Megan Osterhaus) is a woman struggling to understand her place in the ideal family envisioned by her husband (Karl Kenzler). Mary Poppins’s arrival in the suffering family’s home reveals the distance between the two and sheds some light on Mr. Banks’s hardened temperament.

    Valerie Boyle and Andrew Keenan-Bolger lead a capable supporting cast as the humorous servants charged with maintaining order in the otherwise frenzied household. Mary VanArsdel also takes a memorable turn as the simple beggar woman who shows the value behind taking the time to “Feed the Birds.”

    Those familiar with the Broadway production will notice a few minor changes including a scaled-down Banks house designed for easier transit. A new song “Playing the Game” has replaced the frightening “Temper Temper,” which put the children on trial for crimes against their toys. The new scene is much less startling (especially for the younger members of the audience), but the song is lyrically weak and feels out of place from the otherwise-enchanting score.

    Scrapping the sequence entirely would help trim the show’s lengthy two hour and 45 minute run time. Furthermore, a few of the longer numbers such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Jolly Holiday” could easily be shortened without losing their appeal.

    One might expect a show like Mary Poppins to appeal strictly to young children and their parents, but that idea is faulty. Audiences of all ages will enjoy the sharp dialogue and captivating melodies offered by the delightful nanny who “never explains anything.”

    Mary Poppins is currently playing at the Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Tickets run $25 to $90 and can be purchased by visiting or calling the Broadway In Chicago ticket line at (312) 902-1400.


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