With all its pluses, the musical “Mary Poppins,” now at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, would benefit from a couple of subtractions: 1) ditch the video screens that distract from the superb cast and 2) turn down the volume. Even though the crowd at the Marriott skews toward seniors, over-amplification is not, in fact, easier to hear. Perhaps director Gary Griffin can redo the math.
But first to those pluses. The title character sings of being “practically perfect in every way,” and in that role Summer Naomi Smart is indeed perfect, no qualifier needed. Completely in command as Mary Poppins, with a beautiful voice, Smart embodies the sweet-tart nature of the supernatural nanny who first delighted readers of the stories of P.L. Travers and then viewers of the 1964 Walt Disney film, with memorable tunes by the Sherman Brothers, Richard M. and Robert B., including the peppy “A Spoonful of Sugar” and the lyrical “Feed the Birds.” Print and film fused into a 2004 West End musical with a book by Julian Fellowes and additional music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The newer music blends with the Disney tunes like seamless patchwork on a restored Edwardian mansion.
Equally well cast are the bratty siblings who receive a magical makeover from Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael Banks. Madison Gloria Olszewski and Caroline Heffernan share the part of Jane, and on the night I took in the show, Olszewski was flawless. Both she and Johnny Rabe as Michael (played by Brady Tutton in some performances) are the real deal: talented young performers who appear to enjoy what they’re doing. It’s a pleasure to watch them.
The grownup actors are no slouches either. Bernie Yvon roughs up his edges (but keeps his voice mellow) to play Mary’s chimney sweep pal Bert. Susan Moniz charms as Winifred Banks, the children’s mother, and Rod Thomas holds his own as their father, George. Rebecca Finnegan enchants as the Bird Woman and terrifies as Miss Andrew, the nanny who took the magic out of George’s childhood.
All 23 performers bring excellent voices to the songs, and the ensemble hoofs up a storm in “Step in Time” (choreography by Alex Sanchez). Period costumes by Nancy Missimi delight, as do the quirky props (set design by Thomas M. Ryan with props by Sally Weiss), like the full-blown hat tree that Mary pulls from her satchel.
Those props are critical to successfully transplanting a onetime Broadway show filled with special effects to Marriott’s theater-in-the-square. With nine rows on each side, no one in the audience is far from the action (although be sure to note which section you’re in if you vacate your seat during the 15-minute intermission of this 2-1/2 hour show; the setup can be confusing).
Shows staged at the Marriott work best when they take advantage of that intimacy to focus on the performers. But the eight enormous video screens lining the perimeter take our attention away from the actors to focus instead on clumsy animations that stand in for backdrops and special effects. The screens distract and are unnecessary. Special effects should be conjured through stage magic, which works nicely in the scene where the trashed kitchen rights itself.
Ditch the video screens. Turn down the volume (and turn up the heat, please). Focus on the show’s many assets. Let this “Mary Poppins” become supercalifragilistricexpialidocious.
Through Jan. 5, 2014
The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Tickets $40 – $48 at 847-634-0200 or Marriott Theatre
Photos: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre