Mary Poppins, the film, was never a childhood favourite of mine. The story and songs about this most magical of nannies are not my usual fare, either. So, waltzing along to Melbourne’s latest Broadway blockbuster at Her Majesty’s Theatre was a lesson for me. But little did I know that just over two hours later, I would walk out with a lesson in musical theatre I may never forget.
The exceptionally positive early press reviews about the Melbourne production of Mary Poppins the stage musical, a $16 million Disney extravaganza that just may be the most expensive show ever staged in Australia, are right on the money. If ever there was a musical for the whole family to enjoy, this is it. If ever there was a musical to take young (and older) girls along to see, this is it, too. If ever there was a musical with just the right mix of everything for everyone, Mary Poppins is THE show.
Apart from the magical plot and charming songs, the strength in this Mary Poppins is the fact that there is NO weak link in the chain. Co-producer, Cameron Mackintosh, said that due to Australia’s relatively small theatre industry compared to other countries, nowhere else in the world could he cast many of a nations’s leading men and women of the stage in the one show (The Age, 1 Aug., 2001).
Experience certainly adds weight when you want a musical to be “practically perfect” and Mary Poppins has its weight in gold. Understandably though, some of the characters are thinned out a little for the stage production. Marina Prior plays the role of Winifred Banks with that beautiful voice. Philip Quast is a strong and stoic George Banks. Younger audience members will delight in the skill and captivating attraction of Matt Lee who does a fabulous job playing Bert. Other notable performances include Sally-Anne Upton as the hilarious Mrs Brill, Christopher Rickerby as the caricatured Robertson Ay, Judi Connelli as the scary Miss Andrew and Debra Byrne as Bird Woman.
But the star of Melbourne’s Mary Poppins truly was relative newcomer Verity Hunt-Ballard. Surely an inspiration to all aspiring performers, Hunt-Ballard graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts seven years ago and portrayed a delightfully appealing Mary Poppins with a gorgeous voice, wonderful expressions and a not-too-shabby dance step, either. Close behind are the five sets of children playing Michael and Jane Banks. The night I attended, youngsters Victoria Borcsok and Callum Hawthorne were extraordinary illustrations of what talented children in the performing arts are really capable of.
The choreography in Mary Poppins is nothing short of delicious. The showstoppers didn’t disappoint, with the dancing in Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious one of the tightest examples of choreography in a stage musical I have ever seen, while Step in Time was just fabulous.
The sets, costumes and lighting design in Mary Poppins are also fantastic. It’s been a while since I have seen so much colour in a stage musical. Younger audience members, in particular, will love these aspects of the show. If you’re thinking of bringing the children along, have no fear, there’s plenty to keep them entertained and last the distance. Bert dancing up, across (upside down) and down the other side of the picture frame of the proscenium was jaw-opening! As for Mary Poppins flying out over the stalls and dress circle, then up into a trap door inside Her Majesty’s very high ceiling, well this just has to be one of the most magical moments in musical theatre, ever!
Every single element of the Melbourne production of Mary Poppins is superb. This is first class musical theatre. Not to be missed.