Necessarily but imaginatively reduced in scale for touring purposes, this fully satisfying roadshow version of “Mary Poppins” flies into Chicago with air under its wings (or, rather, its umbrella) and an extra spring in its step. With Broadway originals Ashley Brown as the buoyant nanny and Gavin Lee as chipper chimney sweep Bert leading the way, this production possesses a meticulous sharpness to the central and supporting performances, keeping intact the show’s practically perfect blend of edgier, contemporary tone, extra emotional substance and family-friendly familiarity.
Those who saw the show in New York or London will certainly recognize a reduction in grandness, as the full-scale Banks family home simply would have been too big for many houses and too unwieldy for touring. What’s nice here is that the set hasn’t simply been miniaturized — it’s been imaginatively reconceived by designer Bob Crowley.
Now, the interior pops open like a story book, and the top-level bedroom, where many key scenes occur, flies down to floor level. OK, it’s not as big or dimensional or impressive, but it works just fine, and as with the last oversized show staged at the New Amsterdam to travel, “The Lion King,” those who don’t know what they’re missing … won’t know what they’re missing.
The key elements, certainly challenging enough to transport, remain. The sensationally engaging Lee still does a thrilling 360 turn around the proscenium during “Step in Time.” And Brown, who wears this character with infinite confidence, capturing spunk, style and loving sternness, floats out fully over the audience at the end, receiving special cheers from those in the balcony who appreciate the closeup. These moments, together with the fine visual lift of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and a juicy turn from Ellen Harvey as evil nanny Miss Andrew, make the second act an unwavering treat.
In addition to Harvey, the large supporting ensemble, including a couple of kids (Christopher Flaim and Abigail Droeger on opening night) with expert comic timing and a panache for petulance, bring superior enthusiasm to the road production.
Other than the design work, the only other major change here is the replacement of the song “Temper, Temper” with a new one, “Playing the Game,” from composing team George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, for the late act-one scene in which Mary rouses the kids’ toys and departs. The new tune has a mournful tone to it — all well and good — but doesn’t represent an eventful innovation.
More noticeable is how changing economic circumstances since the show’s premiere add potent emotional currency to the threatened unemployment of papa George Banks, played with effective vulnerability by Karl Kenzler. What used to be just a formulaic plot point on our way to Mary’s final flight actually stands out as if it were written for this very moment, as George learns he has saved his bank by rejecting a loan because it was all financial trickery with no substance or human benefit.
When George breaks into Matthew Bourne’s memorably complex choreography for the ever-reprisable “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” it provides an unexpected extra moment of escapist fantasy while acknowledging the darker side of human behavior. If only Mary Poppins had raised the Lehman Bros., we might all be flying kites now.