If ever there was a show that could transport you into a sense of childlike wonder and glee, it’s this one. Endearing performances, visually stunning sets and technical trickery and stunts that one-up themselves at every turn, this is a well-oiled machine with a sprinkle of that irresistible Disney magic. From high-flying acrobatics to mystifying special effects, it pulls out all the stops. It's the kind of show where set changes are applauded.
Whether or not you caught this production from Disney Theatrical with Cameron Mackintosh and the Michael Cassel Group the first time it landed the Sydney stage in 2011, you’re in for a fresh experience. There is an adept new cast and whole lot more tricks packed into its deceptive carpet bag.
It's the kind of show where set changes are applauded
Stefanie Jones (whom you may have seen as Rhonda in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical) has not a button out of place as the lady we’re all here to see, Mary Poppins. As charming street artist and sometime chimney sweep Bert, Jack Chambers (Singin’ in the Rain) has an enigmatic presence even when he’s standing upside down on the roof. Special mention to Aussie musical theatre matron Nancye Hayes (for whom the Hayes Theatre is named) as the Bird Woman, evoking tears with every evocation of “...tuppence a baaaaag”. Rarely missing from a scene, the child actors playing Jane and Michael Banks dole out quips and keep up with all the choreo along with the adults. In one number on opening night, where Chloe Delle-Vedove as Jane was dancing with a full size broom that Mary had miraculously pulled out of a brown paper bag, the broom head fell off. She picked it up and kept right on dancing.
We confess, when the news flew in on the east wind that Mary Poppins would be the next musical that the Disney machine would churn onto a Sydney stage, we weren't overly interested. Could this production hold the same dazzling, childhood-memories-on-steroids invoking numbers that the Aladdin musical gave us? Or the poppy ballads and dramatic costume changes we saw in the stage adaption of Frozen? No – it’s even better.
The secret sauce that makes this production so engaging is that it is not just a transfer of the 1964 film. Instead, a new script draws on PL Travers’ original books, which contain more characters and stories than those that made it into the movie. There’s new music by the Olivier Award-winning British team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and the best-loved Sherman Brothers songs from the movie are also thrown in for good measure. After all, you can’t do this without the tongue-twisting ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ or ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’.
The megawatt nostalgia factor of Mary Poppins is preserved, with a few extra narrative touches that add depth and dimension to the story, and even give Mrs Banks more of a presence than she was granted in the film.
In the program, a delightful passage from Cameron Mackintosh documents the journey that started in 1993 where he convinced a “frail but extremely sharp” 93-year-old Pamela Travers (who famously despised Disney’s film, but didn’t mind Julie Andrews’ take on her heroine) to grant him the stage rights. Mackintosh and his team, including future Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, were finally given the Disney corporation’s blessing in 2001, and the first iteration of this production first hit the stage on the West End in 2004.
Never mind that Mary Poppins is a complete stranger that refuses to provide any references for a nannying job that was never actually listed, and promptly sets up a bed in the children’s nursery. There is an enduring charm to the stern but fun magical nanny (who is never called a witch, but really does emanate some positive witchy vibes) and lasting messages about the pitfalls of dedicating your life to what is good and proper and not what brings you love and joy (while also cleaning your damn room); and never to dismiss someone because they come from a lower social class or are covered in soot.
By the time the last curtain falls, you’ll be left wanting more, and floating out of the theatre exchanging grins with fellow audience members like a child hyped up on a teaspoon of sugar, ready to go fly a kite.