If Mary Poppins walked into the Marriott Theatre's production of the musical bearing her name — not impossible, given that P.L. Travers' most singular ubernanny travels through time and space on the back of the changing wind — I'd venture the first thing she'd do would be head back stage and switch off the massive collection of video screens that surround the stage.
We go to the theater with loved ones to interact with human beings, she surely would remind all present, with a raise of an eyebrow, not to watch digitized kites flying in a fake sky or, more egregious yet, flocks of hungry pigeons around St. Paul's Cathedral that here look more like the MS-DOS version of "Angry Birds" than the poignant backdrop to one of the more beautiful lyrical lines ever written for a musical movie, "Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag."
The very presence of these screens is bad enough; more disappointing yet is the dawning realization that the Marriott has nothing interesting to put on them.
Around halfway through the show — after one dull, artificial silhouette blended into more of the same, scotching the best efforts of the hugely talented cast of Gary Griffin's sometimes poignant, sometimes perplexing production to dispense something resembling emotional truth, I had the usual thought I have when video in theater doesn't work, which is much of the time: if only they had Mike Tutaj, the master designer.
Well, they did have Tutaj, actually and amazingly. He was just either poorly funded or way off his game. Or both.
Certainly, this movie turned musical (this stage "Mary Poppins" was originally a West End and Broadway hit from Cameron Mackintosh and Disney and the touring version played for many months in downtown Chicago) presented some challenges for a theater in the round with low ceilings.
But it seems to me the Marriott had two ways to go.
One was to step up in the special effects department and provide their loyal audience with a better climax to the show than their cheesy little mini-digital Mary flying around the screens, which looks simply pathetic. Your iPhone could do better. Sure, there would have been technical challenges to getting the gal up in the air but it's the first made-in-Chicago production of "Mary Poppins," for goodness sake, at one of our most distinguished theaters, from whom much is expected. There were ways. As Mary might say, anything can happen if you let it. Heck, you won't know a challenge until you've met it, oh Marriott in Lincolnshire, which should not be drifting on autopilot.
The other, equally valid, approach would have been to do the show Chicago-style, stuff all the expectations for spectacle and create a frame that actually requires us to use our imaginations. Period.
I thought that's what Griffin and designer Thomas Ryan would most likely do. And why not? "Poppins" is structured in a magical way with the sweep Bert as the narrator; you could do this whole show with the bare minimum of stuff.
That could have worked beautifully. You've got a fantastic Sherman Bros. score, a terrific book and structure and the indomitable title character.
And, thanks to the superbly cast Summer Naomi Smart, a fine actress in her vocal prime and thriving under Michael Mahler's musical direction, Griffin has found a Mary Poppins who is practically perfect in every way. Smart deftly captures the famous Poppins complexity: her inscrutable origins, her carefully cultivated distant demeanor, her weirdly sexy asexuality, her mystery, and her love for her charges. All of that is there in Travers' books, which are a meditation on nannydom, a role that hardly has died out in our modern insanely busy lives.
Nannies have to walk a fine line between loving their charges and deferring to the kids' parents: Smart's work here, which really is superb, captures all of that. The Banks parents — Rod Thomas as George, Susan Moniz as Winifred — are also excellent, as is Rebecca Finnegan in a variety of roles, including the Bird Woman. Bernie Yvon, who plays Bert, could be Smart's dad, of course, but that actually works quite well, changing the Bert-and-Mary sequences from the usual pseudo-romantic explorations into something slightly more wistful, a subtext that Yvon smartly encourages, between his broad grins.
But, boy, it's hard to get your head or heart around the physical look of this show. You never feel like the Banks household has any boundaries and the famous scenes on the rooftops look as half-baked as the scenic pieces. Staging wise, it's also a strange beast.
At times, Griffin shows us the humanity, pacing, truth and attention to detail that has made him one of Chicago's best directors, indeed a director who has created much of the best musical theater I've seen in this town, while other scenes don't look like they were directed much at all and are merely routine.
The choreography, from Alex Sanchez, delivers on "Step in Time," but otherwise it does not feel well integrated into, well, I'm not sure what the source for such integration will be, since this show lacks a core that's not on a flat-screen TV.
For most people at Wednesday night's audience, Smart, Yvon and their cohorts delivered enough of a show to allow for a good time. I've seen "Mary Poppins," a piece of which I'm exceptionally fond, many times and each occasion makes me yet more impressed with Julian Fellowes' book. Smart is a fine addition to the line of great actresses who've played this role.
But Mary Poppins can't just enter like everyone else. Not ever. And she ain't a video effect. She's Mary Poppins.
When: Through Jan. 5
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Tickets: $40-$48 at 847-634-0200 and marriotttheatre.com