Mercury's 'Poppins' ferociously entertaining

SOUTH EUCLID - She's sure making good use of "Umbrella Airline's" frequent flyer program here and to the west.

She's swooped from the skies to land at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood for their annual holiday show late last year. She came in for another landing at Norwalk High School, which put on the musical about the magical nanny for its spring show.

Mary Poppins is currently grounded at Notre Dame College, where Mercury Theatre Company is impressively performing the musical that bares her name for a fine summer season finale.

And she's not done after her and her fellow quirky, colorful, loveable characters are through in South Euclid, where the vivacious, if not perfect in every way production's on stage for three more performances starting Thursday.

This fall, the wind will propel the mysterious nanny to BGSU Firelands, where Caryl Crane Youth Theatre will perform the musical next month.

Then, she flies back east to Lakewood, for an encore holiday season production at the Beck Center.

Whew!

She may not be a spring chicken, but she's bloody tireless!

There's no hint of tedium in Mercury's production, which treats the song with the impossibly long title and "Step in Time" as the showstoppers they are.

Cast members have clear, rangy and strong singing voices and deftly execute choreographer Melissa Bonde's creative dances.

Director Pierre-Jacques Brault has nicely arranged the performers to create striking stage pictures.

But when Poppins makes her first appearance, or really at any other time, we shouldn't see her clad in black. She's not a dark character, especially compared to the formidable "Holy Terror" Miss Andrew. Yet in this production, Poppins and Andrew appear together in black outfits, a questionable choice at best.

There's nice counterpoint, though, when Miss Andrew (Hester Lewellen) trumpets her "Brimstone and Treacle" as the best method of ensuring children behave. As though it's a ping pong match, Miss Andrew sings the first few words of that dark song, countered by the bright, optimistic tones of "A Spoon Full of Sugar" sung by Poppins (Jennifer Myor).

Poppins' purpose in arriving at the Banks' household during 1900s London isn't to turn the children into quiet statues.

The recent movie "Saving Mr. Banks" makes it clear that George Banks, a kind of Mr. Warbucks pre-Annie, is the one who needed to learn an important life lesson: There's more to life than work and money -- there's parenthood for those with children ("Childhood is a step in time, parenthood's the same. Never miss a chance to get it right," go the lyrics to "Step in Time.")

Brault has taken great care with Mr. Banks' character. As embodied by Jonathan Bova, he comes across at first as dictatorial, commanding and a sourpuss that's reinforced by Bova's frowning shape of a mustache. He's a man who believes children should be seen but never heard and he hasn't left the Victorian age; he basically treats his wife, Winifred (a subservient, eager to please, nervous and torn but ever devoted Dana Aber) as a second class citizen.

Poppins is present to erase from Mr. Banks' mind all he's learned from his former nanny, Miss Andrew. In the title role, Myor is firm but fair, balancing charm with sternness, but not meanness.

Myor's proper Poppins has nice chemistry with Brian Marshall's jack-of-all-trades, Bert. Marshall has a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as the affable fellow and is nimble and dramatic, without overdoing it. His cockney accent could be more convincing, though.

Lewellen's first appearance as Miss Andrew suggests a cranky grandma forced to watch the kids an extra day. Her second appearance in act two is a complete about-face. Her husky voice is as intimidating as "Matilda's" Miss Trunchbull.

Joanne Uniatowski could look more unkempt as the bird woman (the subject of the song "Feed the Birds), but her ragged clothes defines her station in life -- poor, yet charitable and the performer's portrayal is sincere.

The actors who play the Banks children (Niko Ustin and Kayleigh Collins) give unforced performances as precocious and stubborn children. Their sung advertisement for a nanny sounds a little rushed, however.

All the above actors and fine support cast members sing impressively, especially Lewellen, whose range as Miss Andrew will drop jaws.

The action plays out on Janet Conley's simple set, which easily transforms from the bright Banks household to the bank, which resembles a prison with its dark bars.

The projections include a Banks family portrait, which seems out of place for much of the play; this is not a happy, close family before Poppins' arrival, despite Winifred's best efforts.

Michael Jarett, who designed the projections, is also responsible for the fantastic lighting. It reinforces a non-realistic atmosphere through various colors and is intense when necessary,

Mercury is performing the Broadway musical version of "Mary Poppins," which opened in New York in 2006 and played 2,619 performances. It received mixed reviews (at least one critic called it "tedious," which seems quite a stretch).

This musical version features new songs not included in the 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews as Poppins and Dick Van Dyke as Bert. True, live theater forces us to suspend disbelief, but there are some cliché-laden songs that ring overly optimistic in today's world. Can anything really happen if you let it and does "every task you undertake become a piece of cake" if you're optimistic (i.e. gulp down a "spoonful of sugar)?

Speaking of suspension of disbelief, Poppins' "flying" final exit in Mercury's production makes that awfully hard. We watch as assistants help Poppins up a platform and whisk her away.

In her journeys to Lakewoood and Huron, let's hope she feels warm while flying. This show's popularity, largely due to the catchy music and feel good entertainment for the whole family, will demand she doesn't give up her wings anytime soon.

Because, as old as this show is, we still get a shivering feeling of excitement as we anticipate and then hear those rousing melodies.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Mary Poppins"

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

WHERE: Notre Dame College's Regina auditorium, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid

HOW MUCH: $18 for adults and $16 for senior citizens and students. Call 216-771-5862 or visit http://mercurytheatrecompany.org.