Authors: Richard & Robert Sherman ( songs ), Julian Fellowes ( book ) after P. L. Travers. At: The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-325-1700; MercuryTheaterChicago.com; $30-$65. Runs through: May 28
The day after Richard and Robert Sherman won two Oscars ( best original score and song ) for Mary Poppins in 1965, they visited every department of the Walt Disney Studios so all employees could see and hold the prizes. My Aunt Elsie was a lowly Disney administrative employee and was there. It was an act of sharing not ego. The Shermans were living the Mary Poppins message: be courteous, kind and caring.
The values of the film and the original Poppins stories by P. L. Travers are preserved in the stage version, which retains the film's most popular songs. Still, many details are different: characters are eliminated, songs are eliminated or juxtaposed, the storyline is altered ( although substantially the same ) and there's no attempt to duplicate the film's animated sequence ( which Travers detested ). This is information not criticism, because the show is a delight, as are the cast and musical support. If you liked the movie Mary, you'll like the stage Mary.
The title character works magic, so the show needs a degree of visual magic. This production satisfies the basic minimum requirements, but if it has a weakness it's the spectacle elements. Production numbers are a bit cramped on the small Mercury Theater stage, although director L. Walter Stearns and choreographer Brenda Didier use every available inch to squeeze in a cast of 16, and really show their worth in the high-kicking, fast-tapping "Step in Time" number.
Also, one wishes the Mercury stage had fly space and additional mechanical capabilities to facilitate more elaborate scenic effects. The full-width black curtain at the back of the stage calls attention to itself and works against the pictorial sense of early 20th-century London, but is necessary to disguise some of the Mary Poppins stage magic, which includes clever puppets and Mary herself flying.
The heart of this Mary Poppins beats strong, however, because of the utterly on-point and charming performances of Nicole Armold as Mary, Matt Crowle as chimney sweep Bert, Cory Goodrich as Winifred Banks and Kevin McKillip as George Banks. They are fine actors and fine singers. McKillip steals several late scenes because Mary Poppins ( on film and stage ) really is less about how the Banks children change than about how their father changes. The kids are cute and capable ( four alternate as Jane and Michael Banks ), the supporting players are affable and Holly Stauder provides an Act II highlight as rival nanny Miss Andrew ( a role not in the film ).
We've come to expect tasteful and masterful musical interpretation from veteran music director Eugene Dizon. He and his six-piece orchestra do not disappoint.
FYI: The Mercury soon will open a cabaret-style second stage, offering food and drink with a show.