If you've never experienced the big winter musical at Oak Park & River Forest High School, three performances remain of Mary Poppins this weekend. The dazzling, colorful production is amazing in many wonderful ways. The student talent on display is top-notch. It's a worthwhile experience for all ages.
The show, which ran for 2,619 performances on Broadway between 2006 and 2013, is largely based on the beloved 1964 Walt Disney film. But as you may know, author P. L. Travers was unhappy with Julie Andrews' "sugary-sweet" take on the role, even though she won the Best Actress Oscar that year for her performance. When Travers, in her 90s, finally softened enough to permit a stage musical built on her Mary Poppins stories, she insisted that no one connected with the movie could be involved and that the new creative team must be all British. So the musical is noticeably different from the original Disney classic. The script, in fact, was written by Julian Fellowes, mastermind of Downton Abbey.
Director Michelle Bayer works wonders with this huge, ambitious show. At times there are over 110 students onstage. There are also 25 in the pit (orchestra), and at least 40 in the crew. These vital individuals include everyone from student carpenters and electricians to flying operators and running crew. I wish I could name them all.
Mary Poppins is like The Wizard of Oz in that the original film version is so iconic, any new version can initially seem a bit disorienting at first. No tap-dancing penguins here, for instance. But this big show about a mystical nanny is still full of fun. Old favorite tunes lifted from the movie, like "Spoonful of Sugar," "Let's Go Fly a Kite," and everyone's favorite tongue-twister, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," are still there, often expanded. "Chim Chim Cher-ee" actually bookends the show, plus additional songs, like "Playing the Game," in which neglected toys creepily come to life.
The leads all have great singing and dancing prowess. In the title role, Elizabeth Maguire has a great voice, strong comedic timing and impeccable diction. Jonas Talandis is agile and effervescent as Bert, the happy-go-lucky, cockney chimney-sweep played by Dick Van Dyke in the film.
And yes, there is flying! Mary Poppins and her magic umbrella sail high above the stage several times and acrobatic Bert dances upside down across the stage proscenium. This spectacle is as thrilling as a high-wire act.
The plot focuses on the Banks children, a young brother (Gabe Darley) and sister (Marissa Kuriakos) who are out of control and need a firmer hand. Today we might call the Banks household a dysfunctional family. Mr. Banks (Ian Duignan) is a pompous, status-obsessed investment banker who is coldly distant and emotionally absent.
In the film, Mrs. Banks was a frisky suffragette but here she's a lonely former actress unable to get her workaholic husband's attention. This expanded domestic back story undoubtedly appeals to the adult audience.
No-nonsense Mary Poppins, who arrives in the nick of time to save the day, has a profound effect on the whole family. She takes the kids on thrilling adventures, teaching them life lessons along the way.
The huge set keeps morphing — from a city park to the Banks' kitchen. It's amazing to behold, with a large section that opens like a giant Edwardian dollhouse.
A colorful number, "Jolly Holiday," features statues in the park that unexpectedly come alive. Sarah Danganan is especially good in this episode. The stressed-out housekeeper who gets big laughs is Julie Cozette.
The extended "Step in Time" dance featuring a gang of sooty chimney-sweeps is so wonderful it's worth the price of admission. Connor Cornelius did the choreography.
Jeffrey G. Kelly designed the 1910-era costumes, over 300 different outfits in the show. The stage manager is Benjamin Brotman. Kat Woodworth designed the lighting. Teslen Sadowski is the technical director.
This technically demanding production with its lively young cast delivering strong performances would be a perfect way to introduce children to live theater and the opportunities ahead for them when they reach the high school.
Three performances in the school's auditorium at 201 N. Scoville: Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4 at 7:30, with a matinee Sunday, March 5 at 3. Tickets cost $10. Students and seniors are $8.
Answer Book 2019
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