Theatrical powerhouses Disney and Cameron Mackintosh have melded inspiration from both the 1964 film and the writings of Australian author PL Travers to create a fresh and delightful take on one of the most cherished characters from the Disney back catalogue. With an all-Australian cast and a breathtaking set, this spirited show feels like a homage to the traditions of vaudeville and music halls, super-charged with state-of-the-art production values.
The Banks household is in disarray. George Banks (Tom Wren) is a distant father and rather disappointing husband, preoccupied with work and exasperated with the stream of nannies parading through the house, unable to cope with his rambunctious children. His wife Winifred (Lucy Maunder) was an actress who finds herself struggling live up to her husband’s expectations of her new roles as wife, mother and socialite. (Disappointingly, Winifred is no longer a suffragette).
Children Michael and Jane (in this performance played by Sophie Isaac and Reuben Koronczyk) are running wild. Cue the entrance of umbrella-buoyed Mary Poppins (Stefanie Jones) to guide the family back together with a touch of magic and spoonful of sugar.
The cast is brilliant. While Jones is unquestionably the heart and soul of the production – her vocals and stage presence could single-handedly carry the show – this is a formidable ensemble. Jack Chambers as chimney-sweep Bert is mesmerising as he supernaturally channels the charm and fluid moves of Dick Van Dyke in the original 1964 film.
The stiff and beleaguered atmosphere of the Banks home, crafted by the wonderful performances of Wren and Maunder, proves the perfect counterbalance to the bright and magical world fashioned by their new nanny. Patti Newton as Bird Woman gives Mary Poppins its sentimental depth, while Helen Walsh’s Mrs Brill and Gareth Isaac’s Robertson Ay add a shot of much-needed comic warmth. Chelsea Plumley’s astounding range and comic presence lighten her villainy as the treacle and brimstone-wielding Miss Andrews.
There is so much to appreciate in a production of this scale and size – the direction, music, writing and choreography are all worthy of mention – but two elements especially stand out. The set housing all the scenes within 17 Cherry Tree Lane is simply exquisite. The Georgian façade of the Banks’ dollhouse-like abode unfolds like a pop-up book to reveal the delightful interior of the front rooms. With a swivel, we see the rear of the house, which swings open to reveal the kitchen. The children’s attic bedroom and roof-top, set overlooking the lights of London, are enchanting in both detail and scope.
The other aspect of the production that intrigues audience members, seeing them squinting for wires and on the alert for deft-fingered stagehands, is the creation of Mary’s “magic”. From fleeting moments of illusion and sleight-of-hand to Bert’s dance around the proscenium arch and the jaw-dropping finale – every element of the staging combines flawlessly to create a grand sense of spectacle.
While this performance has a swift pace, with its famous musical numbers like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Step in Time” punctuating the show at brisk intervals, the gentler moments prove more than mere counterpoints to the frenetic colour and zeal. Songs such as “Being Mrs Banks”, “Feed the Birds” and “A Man has Dreams” lend a sense of gravity to a production that otherwise could have floated off into the fantastical.
Sitting in this spellbound audience, it is a constant surprise how deeply the story and its accompanying music has seeped into our collective memory. Song after song, the lyrics and melodies are all on the tips of our tongues. Yet nostalgic familiarity does nothing to dull the colour of this Mary Poppins, which is brimming with energy, magic, and family-friendly delight.
Mary Poppins is playing at the Festival Theatre until August 27.
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