Review by Bronwyn Cook
Whilst the magical English nanny Mary Poppins is known and loved globally, she could be considered a true blue Aussie. Not only was her creator P. L. Travers born in Maryborough, Queensland (as was I and a few generations of my family) but her stage producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera), wrote the first draft of the stage version in Australia.
And now, 13 years after her first performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the east wind has returned her back to Melbourne, and on an unseasonably chilly February night (which actually helps us transport to Victorian London)!
It isn’t hyperbole or exaggeration to say that Stefanie Jones (Muriel’s Wedding The Musical, The Sound of Music) is spit spot practically perfect as Mary Poppins. From the second she magically (and somewhat mysteriously) appears in the Banks household, there is a comforting air of familiarity and reassurance that Jones exudes in spades. She combines the very best of all the actors that have played Mary before her, whilst stamping her own high place in the roster of Australian musical theatre leading ladies.
Speaking of leading Australian musical theatre ladies, this production is absolutely spoiled by having two legends of the stage in the cast. As the housewife trying to find her purpose, whilst supporting her husband, Lucy Maunder (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) is a joy as Winifred Banks. Her storyline may be slightly altered, but that doesn’t detract from a heartfelt and genuine performance.
And in the dual role of Bird Woman / Miss Andrew, is the legend that is Marina Prior (9 to 5, Guys and Dolls, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables) who whilst slightly constrained in the Bird Woman tracks, is stunningly (and terrifyingly) brilliant as the not so sweet nanny from Mr Banks childhood. Not only did Prior star in the original Australian production of Poppins (as Mrs Banks), she is the first person globally to play this dual role.
As George Banks, the very precise and ordered master of the house, Tom Wren (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2) does an extremely fine job, especially as his character develops and unwinds throughout the show.
Bringing the chimney-sweep, painter, tap-dancer, jack of all trades Bert, to the stage is Jack Chambers (Singin in the Rain, Hairspray the Musical), whose awful cockney accent I can overlook in return for his absolutely flawless and impeccable dancing (which is to be expected given he was the first winner of So You Think You Can Dance Australia).
As Jane and Michael Banks, Harriet Alder and Sebstian Sero hold their own against the adult cast and often steal the show. At such young ages (12 and 10 respectively) they display a confidence beyond their years and were very entertaining to watch.
What could also be billed as characters in their own rights is the incredible set and costumes, both designed by Bob Crowley, adapted by Rosalind Coombes and Matt Kinley. One of the things I love about what I call traditional musicals like this is the sheer size and scale of sets and costumes when they are done right. And they are very much so in Mary Poppins. Colourful, elaborate, lavish, magical (thanks to illusionists Paul Kieve and Jim Steinmeyer), joyful, sumptuous and stunning. It is after all, a Disney theatrical production!
The songs we all know and love from Mary Poppins, original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman, are augmented seamlessly with new songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Each act has their own absolutely hands down showstoppers “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Step in Time”, both of which on opening night drew extended and well deserved applause from the audience.
In the program there is a story penned by P. L. Travers titled “I never wrote for children”. I found this really interesting as I pondered Mary Poppins place in the current musical theatre landscape. Is it a show for children, as their first musical theatre experience? Is it a nostalgia show – aimed at the generation of parents who grew up with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke to take their kids along to or even revist solo?
The conclusion I came to is…it doesn’t matter.
Mary Poppins is a show for the ages for all ages.
Mary Poppins is now playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.