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Brilliant energy balances humanity in stage version of 'Poppins'
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Columnist

Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert in the original Broadway production of "Mary Poppins." The two reprise their roles for the national tour launching in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

 

Courtesy of Disney/CML

Ashley Brown plays "Mary Poppins" in the Broadway production of "Mary Poppins" at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Brown reprises her role for the national tour launching in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

 

Courtesy of Disney/CML

Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert in the original Broadway production of "Mary Poppins." The two reprise their roles for the national tour launching in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

 

Courtesy of Disney/CML

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Published: 3/27/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 4/10/2009 12:55 PM

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Excited doesn't begin to describe the audience for the opening of the long-awaited "Mary Poppins" national tour Wednesday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Exhilarated is more like it.

Young children bounced in their seats, adults gasped with surprise and the applause that accompanied the overture's opening notes didn't stop until after the enigmatic Mary Poppins (the delightful Ashley Brown reprising the role she created on Broadway) flew away for the last time. Sharing the acclaim was the irresistible, gravity defying Gavin Lee - as lithe and likable a song-and-dance-man as you'll have the pleasure to watch - who plays jack-of-all-trades Bert, the role he originated in London and on Broadway.

This collaboration between Disney (a company that knows how to do lavish), and musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh warranted the enthusiastic response. Except for a couple of minor technical snafus, the mega musical inspired by P.L. Travers' stories and Disney's 1964 film is practically perfect.

Written by Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park"), the show retains much of the cheery, well-loved score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, but augments their music with complementary tunes (seamlessly integrated) by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Marvelously conceived by director Richard Eyre "Mary Poppins" references the film, at the same time it establishes its own identity. That's especially evident in the wonderfully vivid "Jolly Holiday," where Eyre, co-director/choreographer Matthew Bourne and set/costume designer Bob Crowley translate to the stage what film animators created for the big screen.

What's more, Eyre finds the human drama within the spectacle. After all, "Mary Poppins" is really about a broken family: George Banks (Karl Kenzler), the absent father preoccupied with work; Winifred Banks (Megan Osterhaus), the wife and mother who questions her identity, and their petulant children Jane and Michael (Abigail Droeger and Christopher Flaim, terrific young actors who alternate with Aida Neitenbach and Justin Hall), who want nothing as much as their parent's attention. Into their home (Crowley's impressive, sliding set which initially unfolds like a pop-up book) comes the new nanny Mary Poppins, who starts off teaching the children compassion and responsibility and winds up showing the entire family how to cherish each other.

The women are superb. Valerie Boyle supplies comic relief in her role as the family cook. As George's tyrannical former nanny Miss Andrew, the deliciously operatic Ellen Harvey delivers a performance that rivals Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch. Then there's Brown. A gifted singer with a gloriously robust voice, she plays Mary Poppins with a confidence bordering on smugness and tempered by a subtle, self-aware sense of humor. Together, she and Lee make a formidable duo. Factor in a pair of bona-fide showstoppers: the gleeful, endlessly entertaining "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and the invigorating "Step in Time," a showcase for Bert and the chimney sweeps that elevates the show to whole other level. (Brilliant as it was, I couldn't help but wonder, how Marc Robin will re-imagine it for a theater-in-the-round when Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre secures the rights to the regional premiere). At present, "Mary Poppins" is scheduled here through mid-July, after which it moves to Cleveland.

I expect fans will have a hard time letting her go.