A few years ago, reviewing the national tour of the hit London and Broadway musical "Mary Poppins" in Chicago during its extended run, I wondered how Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire might re-imagine the show in the round.
I got my answer Wednesday evening at the opening of Gary Griffin's cannily calibrated, wonderfully sung regional premiere featuring the ideally cast Summer Naomi Smart as the titular nanny.
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"Mary Poppins"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, (847) 634-0200 or marriotttheatre.com
Showtimes: 1 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 5
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $40-$48; senior and student discounts available; dinner-theater options available
Parking: Free lot and valet service
Rating: For all ages
With her crystalline voice, impeccable posture and no-nonsense demeanor (softened on occasion by an impish grin), Smart makes it difficult to imagine any other Chicago actress in the role. And that's saying something.
She delivers a practically perfect performance, humanizing the enigmatic Mary, discreetly revealing the character's affection for her charges while maintaining her professional reserve. And underscoring all of that is a subtle whimsy that suggests Mary is having every bit as much fun as they are.
Candid, emotional but not overly sentimental and briskly paced, Griffin's is an intimate, thoroughly enjoyable revival. Michael Mahler also earns kudos for his music direction.
Based on P.L. Travers' stories and Walt Disney's 1964 film, the show's great strength rests with its glorious score by brothers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (whose considerable talent was also evident earlier this year in Goodman Theatre's "Jungle Book"). Try keeping the grin off your face during the breezy "Jolly Holiday," the ever-hummable "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" or the rollicking, showstopper "Step in Time," all of which boast the rigorous choreography of Alex Sanchez.
Also deserving mention is the lilting "Feed the Birds." An appeal for charity and compassion sung by Smart and Rebecca Finnegan's old woman, it is the most affecting moment of the show, which centers around a dysfunctional family. Preoccupied with work and determined to maintain their social status, father George Banks (Rod Thomas) neglects his family emotionally. Meanwhile, wife Winifred (Susan Moniz) questions her role as Mrs. Banks, while mischievous children Jane (Madison Gloria Olszewski, alternating with Caroline Heffernan) and Michael (Johnny Rabe, alternating with Brady Tutton) torment a succession of nannies. That is until Smart's Mary Poppins lands on their doorstep.
Her job is to care for the children, but her mission is to repair the fractured family, which she does by teaching them to cherish each other and embrace simple joys.
Thomas delivers an especially well-rounded performance as the demanding George, whose transformation is the most profound. He and Moniz are terrific, as are Olszewski and Rabe. The always-engaging Bernie Yvon plays Bert, the genial, gentlemanly chimney sweep, who serves as narrator. (Another word about whimsy, Yvon has loads, especially when snickering like an 11-year-old boy after pulling a "P" from a box of letters).
Paula Scrofano and Matthew Crowle supply comic relief as the Banks' overwhelmed cook and hapless manservant. Also deserving mention is Finnegan, who makes the most of her role as Miss Andrew, George's despotic former nanny. Bathed in emerald (courtesy of lighting designer Diane Ferry Williams), Finnegan's deliciously evil, old-school disciplinarian is a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and Cruella de Vil. Terrific.
Ultimately, however, this show belongs to Smart, who burst onto the Chicago scene five years ago and has continued to delight ever since.
Practically perfect indeed.