4:45 PM CDT, October 16, 2011
When I last saw "Mary Poppins," in early 2009, the first national tour was brand new. After a rehearsal process that took place entirely in Chicago, the stage-musical version of the movie-musical tale of the magical uber-nanny opened here in front of its producers, Cameron Mackintosh and Disney's Thomas Schumacher, and even one of the famous Sherman brothers who wrote the stunning score. Redesigned for the road, the production lacked the jaw-dropping dimension of the original London production, but it was deftly staged and amply funded (Bob Crowley created lush new designs), it had the original Broadway stars, Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee, and it played in Chicago for months. "Mary Poppins" was warmly received, and rightly so.
Two-and-a-half years have passed; quicker than you can say supercalifragilisticexpilidocious. Most of that original touring cast is flying a kite (or maybe cleaning chimneys) elsewhere. A new flying nanny has returned - not to occupy Grant Park, despite her determination to get the banker patriarch of her family to invest in people rather than those who make money from money - but to mystify a whole new generation who would not have sat still long enough in 2009. And, mercifully, she's still flying all the way to the Gods of the Cadillac Palace, a treat not on display at all of the touring stops.
Shows long on the road develop bad habits and, in the first few minutes, one of the most common of them is on display at "Mary Poppins." I don't know if it's rote muscle-memory, a stage-manager cracking a whip or a collective unconscious desire to get to the bar more quickly, but the first 20 minutes of this show are performed at such break-neck speed that you can only catch about half of the expository lines. And none of them feel particularly organic.
Audience rustles around me suggested many in the target demographic were wondering what was going on - evidence that Nicolas Dromard, the current Burt, may sing and dance with charm, but he needs to remember that Job One for this particular sweep must be about connecting the story to the audience, especially those meeting Ms. P. for the first time at this particular one of eight shows per week.
But once Rachel Wallace shows up and opens her umbrella, and a few of the experienced actors take a breath long enough to sense to look out and see that there are needy neophytes watching, "Mary Poppins" reforms its initial bad behavior.
Wallace may not quite match Brown's astoundingly clear voice (few do, frankly) but her take on the good-but-inscrutable nanny is quite deliciously arch and complex. Disney and Mackintosh take great care with marquee casting and Wallace never falls prey to sentiment. She is, therefore, a fine surrogate P.L. Travers, the reclusive English author who created this iconic figure, and who was determined to show that the best teachers are not just those with compassion, but those who instill both an imperative for self-reliance and, most interestingly of all, an awareness of life's enigmas.
Mary Poppins explains nothing, and, delightfully, you feel that Wallace prefers it that way.
There are some other notably strong performances, including Blythe Wilson's sad-eyed Winifred Banks, Laird Mackintosh's troubled George Banks (he finally kicks in, late in the show), and Janet MacEwen's resonant Bird Woman (she of the "tuppence a bag"). You understand every last word from Rachel Izen's droll Mrs. Brill. Talented as they are, the kids I saw could do to take a breath and pull back further from those insidious Nickelodeon tendencies. Those roles in this particular show are, to say, the least, crucial.
Still, as tours go these days, "Mary Poppins" remains a top-tier attraction, replete with that requisite full Equity cast, a sizable orchestra and a more-than-ample production (long ago, directed by Richard Eyre) that not only delivers many pleasures, but it is beautifully focused on allowing a family to come to a show together and leave believing that they all have enjoyed, and learned something, together.
It's a show that might spark conversation on the way home ("Mom/Dad, why do you work so much?") and that might well result in the kind of positive familial change of which Ms. Poppins would, grudgingly, approve.
When: Through Nov. 6
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 mins.
Tickets: $25 to $90 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
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